The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the Coen Brothers most recent film and was released in November of last year. It’s a collection of stories set in Americas west and stars Irishmen Liam Neeson and Brendan Gleeson as well as Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco and Tom Waits among others.
With the Coen brothers, it’s never really easy to analyse or even describe the plot line with much certainty. As always, there’s a lot of metaphors and hidden meaning behind relatively simple stories. Watching ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is certainly a unique experience, whether it is an enjoyable one is a different matter entirely.
One of the issues that I had with the film was the struggle to get to know the individual characters. As soon as you began to understand their motives and who they are they were swept aside and a new character was brought in.In fairness to the Coen Brothers, the intention was never to create characters that the audience could love or hate, empathize or sympathize with or even really understand to the same level as you would in conventional movies. Instead we get little samples of character intended to give you more well rounded view of the Americas West at the Time.
To an outsider such as myself, perhaps untrained in the skill of extracting meaning of ballads and appreciating them to their full extent, the stories felt like a bunch of short movies jumbled together in one 2 hour film. Maybe with further research the connection between this collection could be found but even hours of lying in bed trying to figure it out proved futile . They felt like separate stories, albeit very interesting ones. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t extract meaning from them individually. Some of these meanings also overlap, such as that of the rejection of the law and the story of the foreigner and perhaps, in this sense, there doesn’t have to be a solid link between the ballads and rather they should just be appreciated for what they are.
They are an extremely interesting and largely enjoyable collection of stories. James Franco appears as an outlaw on the run from the law after an attempted bank robbery. Tim Blake Nelson is the most cheerful gunslinger we’ve ever seen as he dances and sings around a saloon. Take that Clint Eastwood. We also get a very welcome appearance from the always excellent Brendan Gleeson who appears as a light hearted, good humoured Irish Bounty Hunter alongside Jonjo O’Neill. We also get some typical Coen brothers dark humour which keeps us going throughout.
I would recommend watching this film for the experience even if it the stories do feel a bit separated. It’s well made and the acting and script are of the usual high standard for the Coen Brothers movies. Overall, though, the movie felt a bit like finger food at a party, tasty and a source of short term enjoyment, but not the wholesome, satisfying meal that you need.