The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, has ample opportunity to fill you with a bevy of emotions. It could delight you, it could unnerve you, it could fill you with sadness or leave you feeling full of joy… but unfortunately my time spent with the film left me mostly feeling bored and full of sighs of tedium. Despite a varied and talented cast, and six individual short stories, there’s a constant flat emptiness to the proceedings of the film, and only in two of the stories did I ever find myself caring about the little tales I was experiencing. There’s certainly much to unpack with this film, so let’s not dilly-dally with the introduction anymore and instead get on with the review.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology film that contains six individual stories. Each story deals with characters with varying circumstances and characteristics (some with ill intentions and others with pure ones) and they all take place in the Old West.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was a film I was fully expecting to like. It was a Coen Brothers helmed film, with a great cast and an anthology structure that offered the opportunity for multiple dark but still somehow humorous adventures that the Coen’s are so good at. But from the very beginning, something just didn’t feel right to me.
I’m not sure if it was the irritating character of Buster Scruggs and his incessant singing, the drab cinematography or just the general story involving Scruggs – maybe it was a combination of all of them (plus a few more) – but I immediately found myself not getting into the rhythm of the film. But what started off as me not meshing with the tone or style of the film developed into me not enjoying or caring about most of the stories that I then went on to sit through.
Each story followed a pretty basic structure – a structure you’ll find to be common in a lot of short films – and I quickly found myself getting bored with that structure. You’re introduced to characters and their situation, you get an idea of what life is like for them (this segment was usually hammered home too much by the film) things build and build and then they usually end with a shocking ending that is supposed to make a significant impact on you.
Now, the endings to nearly all of the stories certainly did their job of making an impact on me. I can vividly recall each on of them and while watching them they certainly captured my attention. But what I realised was that to get to those endings that I found so effective or so memorable, I had to drag myself through a story that mostly bored me and never did anything I found to be engaging. It was a case of long drawn out segments where I would sit with my head in my hand and then a final twist that pulled an emotional response from me and then I’d move onto the next one.
This leads me to ponder about the praise the film is currently getting. I have to wonder if why so many people are enjoying The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is because they’re remembering the effective endings to each story and forgetting about the long drawn out stories that tediously went around in circles for a while before getting there. Maybe I’m completely wrong (that’s usually the case) but I am a little baffled by people’s overall enjoyment of this film.
Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy parts to this film; particularly the story titled: ‘All Gold Canyon’. It was the always wonderful character work of Tom Waits, the stunning cinematography and the simple and effective little story that it told, that resulted in me enjoying it so much. It did fall into having some of the issues that I mentioned a moment ago, but they were easy to overlook because the story itself was so engaging to watch, and again made all the more enjoyable by Wait’s performance.
I also found the story entitled: ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ to be enjoyable at times. Yes it does run on too long and the specific story itself did feel like it was dragging its feet at times, but the blossoming romance between the two main characters and the path it went down made it one of the stories that I found to be both endearing and heart-breaking – one of the final shots literally got an audible gasp of sadness from of me.
But I’m sad to say that when it comes to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as a whole, I did not enjoy my time with it. There were many occasions where I sat there signing due to tedium and complete disinterest. The majority of its stories weren’t ones that I enjoyed and most of them were uninteresting to sit through. There were a few glimmers of joy, but for me they were too few and far a part to ever make my time spent watching the film not feel like an unwanted effort.
And so, I’m disheartened to say that I do not recommend, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I didn’t expect to ever be in a situation where I wasn’t recommending a Coen Brothers film, but here we are. This is yet another film to be added to the list of disappointing Netflix exclusives. It’s almost like talented directors – such as the Coen’s – should avoid the platform. Anyway, if you do find yourself watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I hope you find more enjoyment in it than I did.
I’m really interested to know what you thought of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and my review of it, so please feel free to leave any opinions or bits of feedback you may have, in the comments section down below. Like what you read? The please consider following both my blog and my Twitter – @GavinsRamblings – and help me grow this hobby into something more. Anyway, I’ll bring things to a close now by offering you my heartfelt thanks. Thank you for taking the time to read my silly little review, it means so much to me!