“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a representation of what it means to be human. No matter who we are, or even where we come from, we’re all going to wind up at the same place at the end of our worldly existence. In other words, each of us has a story, and there is always something about each of those stories that make us interesting and unique.
Directors, writers and producers Joel and Ethan Coen have once again proved that not only are they the masters of melancholy, they have also shown that they are still capable of throwing their audience for a whirlwind—some 30 years into their storied career.
Presented as a western anthology, “Buster Scruggs” follows six thematically connected narratives that each run about 20 minutes. This could’ve easily posed a problem for the Coens, as the viewer is not given a great deal of time to invest themselves in each character. Luckily, through sheer mastery of storytelling and filmmaking, each vignette entices a viewer and leaves them wanting more.
Like many of their previous works, the Coens manage to balance the absurdity of humanity with the melancholic realities of everyday life. This can initiate laughter and heartbreak all within the same sequence, and also force one to reflect on the absurdities within their own life.
As a welcome evolution to their filmmaking as well, the Coens don’t rely entirely on their interest in the macabre, with some vignettes suggesting a perhaps hopeful conclusion for its characters. This leaves me thinking about how, yes, life can be dreadful, but it doesn’t always have to be. With a little bit of resilience and courage to overcome our everyday challenges, we can still make the best out of our lives.
It’s difficult to say what the plot of “Buster Scruggs” is because, as mentioned already, the film is composed of six vignettes that aren’t narratively connected. I suppose it’s safe to say that it is a film about nothing but existing. This doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining, however. There are plenty of sudden forays into song and dance, and even gunplay, to keep even the most impatient viewer glued to their seat.
As an added bonus, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”) conveys a timely presentation of the Old West. Filmed on location all over the western United States, it’s amazing to see just how much of nature civilization hasn’t touched. From its depiction of sweeping vistas to intimidating mountain heights, “Buster Scruggs” feels as though it were ripped from a time-capsule and restored in high-definition.
As the newly-initiated member in the Coens’ pantheon of films, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is not a surprising entry. It demonstrates their strengths as auteurs and follows, almost to the letter, similar themes that have been tackled numerous times before. Anything else, though, could be considered ill-advised, and it’s to the benefit of the Coens that they choose to tackle these themes in diverse genres so no two films of theirs are ever exactly alike.
That last part may seem like a gripe, but I digress. I could watch different depictions of the same theme for the rest of my life—assuming it’s done well and its relatable, which is exactly what “Buster Scruggs” does. The Coen brothers have proven that they understand what makes people laugh, cry and tick. To quote a character from the film, “We like stories that are about us, but not about us.” It’s self-centered to say, but I’m always down to watch a movie that reminds me of, well, me. 5/5