February 16, 2019

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Grade: 70/100

Director: Ethan and Joel Coen
Stars: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Harry Melling

What it's about. Another quirky pseudo-comedy from the Coen Brothers, now in their fourth decade as America's most reliably good filmmakers. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a western divided into six unrelated vignettes.

Our title segment is first, and features loquacious singer and gunslinger Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson). He arrives in an Old West town and promptly kills numerous folks who challenge his good nature. He revives the long-lost "Little Joe" number from Destry Rides Again (1939), with appropriately revised lyrics. Then he is killed in a duel by Willy Watson.

The second story, Near Algodones, stars James Franco as a bank robber who is either very unlucky or very lucky, depending on the whims of the Coen Brothers. His run lasts longer than expected, but eventually he is hanged, despite the sighting of a beautiful woman in the assembled multitude.

The third tale, Meal Ticket, has limbless Harry Melling delivering a series of dramatic narrations on an endless tour to gradually dwindling audiences. His keeper, Liam Neeson, witnesses a much larger crowd showing excitement over a chicken who apparently has the mathematical skills of a sixth-grader. Neeson purchases the chicken, and apparently drowns poor Melling in a river.

The fourth story, All Gold Canyon, stars famous musician Tom Waits as an elderly gold prospector. He encounters a virgin land, and works the area for a spell, eventually locating the mother lode. His eureka moment is spoiled when he is shot by young drifter Sam Dillon. Waits plays dead and surprises Dillon.

The fifth chapter, The Gal Who Got Rattled, stars Zoe Kazan as a polite and moderately attractive woman under the control of her brother Jefferson Mays, a failed schemer. They join a wagon train to Oregon. On the way, Mays dies, and penniless Kazan turns to obliging wagon master Bill Heck, who soon proposes. Alas, Kazan's love for her ever-barking mutt places her in peril from an Indian attack, which seems likely to kill her despite a last stand by Heck's partner, veteran wagon guide Grainger Hines.

The final story, The Mortal Remains, places three disparate elderly coach passengers, Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, and Chelcie Ross, in the company of corpse transporters Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O'Neill. After much chatter, the coach arrives at a hotel.

How others will see it. The recently released film already has more than 70K user votes at imdb.com, and has picked up three Oscar nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay. The user ratings are slightly underwhelming at 7.3 out of 10, with the unhappy deaths of vignette stars working against the movie. The shortness of the segments also seems to be a negative; they end suddenly just when the viewer becomes most intrigued.

The user reviews have their expected measure of praise but there also comments such as "dark comedy ends up just dark", and "started well but couldn't keep it up."

How I felt about it. The old saying that "nothing is certain but death and taxes" is only half true in the cinematic West. None of the characters pay taxes. But plenty of them die. Too many, for most viewers.

But they are only characters, and are thus readily expendable. No actors were harmed in the making of this film. It matters little whether you are asking for it, like Buster Scruggs or James Franco, or whether you're simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Your survival depends upon the film's moral that life is unfair, and generally short. But the grizzled prospector comes through, proving that hard work and playing possum just might pan out after all.