Movie Review: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a collection of six stories. Each story is set in the Wild West, and features a variety of characters doing a variety of different things. The first story tells the tale of Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), an outlaw gunslinger with a passion for song. This is the titular story, but there are many more tales to be told from the Wild West.
There is the tale of an attempted bank robbery gone wrong, and there is the tale of a traveling entrepreneurial entertainer. Then there is the tale of an old man searching for gold, and a tale of a young woman traveling west from her family. Finally there is the tale of a group of people sharing a stagecoach and exchanging stories. Each story has a different set of characters doing different things but it is important to remember that no tale is a safe tale when it comes to the Wild West.
The Pros & Cons
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (+3pts)
Meal Ticket (-4pts)
Near Algodones & All Gold Canyon (+6pts)
The Mortal Remains (-3pts)
The Gal Who Got Rattled (+6pts)
Too Many, Too Short (-5pts)
Pro: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (+3pts)
This was a fairly light-hearted, silly story set in the Wild West. There are a lot of kills in this one, but the tone is always light. What I thought worked so well about this story, was that it was a great way to transition into the following five stories. I thought the ending was as predictable as storylines go, but (due to the silliness) it worked for this story.
Was it an amazing short story? No, but Tim Blake Nelson was entertaining as Buster Scruggs, the plot was simple, and the story pulled me into the movie. It was a short, fun story that got me in mood for some western stories, and left me waiting for the next one to begin. With that respect, it was a decent story to kickoff this movie.
Con: Meal Ticket (-4pts)
I thought this story had potential, but it ended up killing a lot of the film’s momentum. "Meal Ticket" was the third short story in the film, I believe, and it told the tale of an entrepreneurial entertainer (Liam Neeson) who traveled with an amputee actor (Harry Melling). The amputee had no arms and no legs, but he had a gift for acting. The entrepreneur took care of the actor, but the two had far from a friendly relationship.
It was as if the entrepreneur viewed the actor as a pet or an item that only existed to make him money. It was an interesting relationship, but it did not seem like the filmmakers wanted to explore it. Maybe this was due to the fact that this was a short story, so the filmmakers did not have enough time to dive deep into this relationship. Unfortunately, the reason for this did not matter, the result was a shallow story that did not live up to its potential. This made the story feel boring, and was made worse by the fact that there is no dialogue (except for the scenes where the actor is performing), which makes the story feel slow and uneventful.
Pro: Near Algodones & All Gold Canyon (+6pts)
These two stories were ones that I enjoyed quite a bit. The first was titled “Near Algodones” and told the tale of a man trying to rob a bank, only for his plan to go terribly wrong. The bank robber was played by James Franco, and had his plan foiled in a pretty unexpected way. It was pretty crazy and entertaining to see it happen, but I thought the story went downhill from there. I did not dislike anything that came after, but the story definitely peaked early and made for an anti-climactic ending. We got to see how his story played out after the attempted robbery and, while it was not as exciting as the robbery itself, I was still mildly entertained (even though I hoped more would happen).
The next story was titled “All Gold Canyon” and told the tale of an old man obsessing over trying to find gold. The set for this story was visually stunning and the old man was compelling to watch. It was cool to see the process he used to find gold as well as how the obsession had taken a hold of him. The story even has a twist towards the end that I definitely did not expect. To put it simply this story was short and sweet. It had a simple plot, but it was both fun and interesting.
Con: The Mortal Remains (-3pts)
While “Meal Ticket” had too little dialogue, “The Mortal Remains” had too much. This story was all dialogue and was a pretty anti-climactic story with which to close the film. It was a tale of a group of people sharing a stagecoach and trading stories with one another. It was quite the diverse group (with respect to their lifestyles), so each had their own unique story to tell, but it was just so dialogue heavy. This, mixed with the accents, made it hard for me to focus on, or care about, what the characters were saying. The performances were solid, but there was not enough time to develop any of these characters, which made for a boring story about characters I did not care about. Closing the film with such an uneventful story, like this, felt like a bit of a let-down.
The Gal Who Got Rattled (+6pts)
This was easily my favorite story in the film. It was a bit slow in the beginning, but it kept getting more and more interesting until it delivered a climax that had me on the edge of my seat. This story is about a woman and her brother who are traveling with a convoy. Her brother passes away, so she looks to one of the men leading the convoy for help. I do not want to spoil the story, but there was a lot I liked about it.
I liked that the plot and the tone felt like a true western story. The characters were also developed properly, so I cared about them. They were easy characters to relate to, the performers maintained my interest, and the climax was unexpected in the best way. The climax was raw, intense, tragic, and everything else you hope for in a western story. I liked a lot of the stories in this movie, but this was definitely my favorite one.
Con: Too Many, Too Short (-5pts)
As is usually an issue with collection movies like this, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs seemed to suffer a bit by having too many stories. Rather than tell three or four short stories with enough time to fully flesh them out, the filmmakers decided to cram six stories into a single two-hour period. What was so bizarre about this choice, was that it was Netflix who made the movie. This makes me wonder why Netflix did not simply make a six episode limited series, where they could have been given the proper amount of screen time to do these stories right.
Did I hate the movie? No, far from it, but I thought that even the stories I liked could have benefited from more development. The stories I did not like obviously would have benefited from this as well. If the filmmakers needed to make a movie instead of a limited series, they should have cut a couple of stories out, in order to better serve the others. By trying to tell six stories in about two hours, the filmmakers showed that they bit off a bit more than they could chew.
Grade: C+ (78pts)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was a movie that I went into with little expectations. It was not that I had low expectations, I just did not have any expectations, but I always enjoy a good western story so I decided to give it a shot. It is a collection of six short stories and, while two of the stories left quite a bit to be desired, the remaining four were pretty good for what they were. Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose to include a few too many stories, with respect to what they had time for.
The first story was a silly introduction that got me in the mood to see some western stories. Then there were a couple I liked, a couple I disliked, and one that I liked a lot. The ones that I did not like seemed to suffer from not having enough screen time to develop the story or the characters properly. I honestly think the movie would have been better suited as six hour-long episodes, and I do not know why Netflix decided not to do this. That being said, if you like a good western story like I do, then you will enjoy some of these. Just do not expect to like all of the six stories in this movie, because some of them definitely needed work.