The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
November 17, 2018 11:12 AM - Subscribe

The Coen brothers's newest Western anthology. Debuted on Netflix last night. Staring Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, and Tom Waits. The film is presented in the form of a short story collection called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier. Segments in between depict a hand turning the pages of a book as it goes through the six chapters.
posted by growabrain (42 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
It was hard for me to decide if they hate westerns or love them. Was this a loving homage or an indictment?

The Wingless Thrush bit felt slightly out of place. The others all had clear roots in Western tropes that I immediately recognized but that one I couldn't place. It was also so very first-film-made-at-art school type of storytelling that I wonder if that was the point.

Overall the stories were entertaining but I wouldn't say it's my favorite Coen work.
posted by M Edward at 2:21 PM on November 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


Like most anthologies, not all are winners though each has its highlights. The first story is probably the most fun.

Great music, strong individual performances and no one writes Western patois quite like the Coens.

Odd reliance on tropes though; the first story had me hoping there’d be more liberties taken with the genre conventions but even their trademark strangeness was dialled back. A little diversity in the cast and stories with better treatment of women would be nice too.

But I’d watch Tom Waits pan for gold for a whole feature film.
posted by slimepuppy at 2:30 PM on November 17, 2018 [11 favorites]


I'm not a huge Coen brothers fan, although I do like Fargo, and after the first couple of black comedy entries this did turn out to be increasingly grim (with "Meal Ticket" as the tonal turning point).

It was hard for me to decide if they hate westerns or love them. Was this a loving homage or an indictment?

Much of what transpired seemed deliberately pointless--Buster Scruggs' "career," the bank robbery, the monotony of the road show, the marriage proposal. The characters often turn out to be disposable or interchangeable (Harrison contemplating the chicken is the most blatant example). Only the prospector and the Grim Reapers at the end get what they want, and even the prospector's presence in the landscape turns out to be evanescent. It's telling that apparently everyone gets to go to Heaven.

I wondered if the film was treating the revisionist trend in Westerns as, in effect, an artistic dead end.

After a while, I started watching for the visual and verbal echoes. The gun-slinging man in black from the first episode reappears as a much less glamorous variant to kill the prospector; both Buster Scruggs and the bank robber make their first stops at completely isolated buildings; the first and last episodes make singing a key plot point; the accusing gaze of the "wingless thrush" near the end of his episode comes back in the owl's glare at the prospector; the two Comanche attacks (the most cringe-inducing aspect of the film); etc.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:02 PM on November 17, 2018 [8 favorites]


The wagon train story was very Romeo and Juliet in its ending and I did think it would have been better served to that end if Mr. Knapp had been the one to go find her instead of Mr. Arthur.

The Mortal Remains story was pretty standard issue Twilight Zone, I thought. You could see what was happening from the very start of it, especially with the Thigpen character looking so much like a devil in his styling.
posted by the webmistress at 7:15 PM on November 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


It was hard for me to decide if they hate westerns or love them. Was this a loving homage or an indictment?

Loving homage, I would say. The book illustrations are very much Boys Own western, as are the stories, which explains how tropey it all is. I had books just like that when I was a kid.

I thought it was delightful from start to finish.
posted by surlyben at 10:58 PM on November 17, 2018 [6 favorites]


So when I wrote "this buster scruggs is their best movie yet", I was under the influence, and not to be trusted. Now that I've seen it twice, I still love the first 4 episodes, but I think that the last two drag the whole series down. Everybody will have their own list
posted by growabrain at 8:53 AM on November 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


I liked it a lot. I had a weird sense of deja vu when All Gold Canyon started with the dialog, so I checked Wikipedia and sure enough, that one was based on a Jack London short story I read years ago.

The wagon train story was very Romeo and Juliet in its ending and I did think it would have been better served to that end if Mr. Knapp had been the one to go find her instead of Mr. Arthur.

I disagree. Up to that point, Mr. Arthur had done almost nothing but mutter monosyllabic acknowledgements to whatever Knapp was saying, while Knapp was constantly talking about Mr. Arthur's prowess with everything having to do with running a wagon train to Alice. There needed to be a payoff for all that talk, and Mr. Arthur knowingly playing possum with the Comanche coming for his scalp was that payoff, and also the trigger for the ending.
posted by LionIndex at 9:10 AM on November 18, 2018 [5 favorites]


I just finished it and liked it a lot. Tom Waits' conversation with "Mr. Pocket" was worth the price of admission.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 11:05 AM on November 18, 2018 [7 favorites]


Meal Ticket just seemed pointlessly grim to me. A proper ending would have been for Liam Neeson to discover, too late, that the mathemachicken was a trick that didn't rely on the chicken at all. At least that would have provided some kind of payoff.

I love Tom Waits eternally, but didn't find All Gold Canyon to be all that interesting, story-wise.

I liked The Gal Who Got Rattled the most, though that was due almost entirely to Zoe Kazan, who is utterly charming.

The Mortal Remains had a very Tarantinoesque feel to it.
posted by dephlogisticated at 8:47 PM on November 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


Tom Waits TOTALLY would have been a prospector or a trapper if this were 100 years ago.

And the Wingless Thrush story may not have fit Western Tropes, but it felt very...Western to me nevertheless (in a "it's not a trope but it's believeable that something like this might have happened" kind of way).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:00 PM on November 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


When I saw that Tom Waits was playing a Western prospector, my only thought was, "Yeah...that sounds right."

I totally agree that The Mortal Remains had a serious Tarantino vibe.

And EmpressCallipygos, I agree with you on the Wingless Thrush. I can only describe it as the kind of cruelty that's totally plausible as happening in the West, if that makes sense. Like, it's the kind of story that would be in the background of a Sergio Leone film or a Jonah Hex comic.
posted by MrBadExample at 10:37 PM on November 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


Meal Ticket just seemed pointlessly grim to me. A proper ending would have been for Liam Neeson to discover, too late, that the mathemachicken was a trick that didn't rely on the chicken at all. At least that would have provided some kind of payoff.

I was expecting that exact ending, and when they faded to black over Neeson's face, I just... wow. That was grim even for the Coens.

And EmpressCallipygos, I agree with you on the Wingless Thrush. I can only describe it as the kind of cruelty that's totally plausible as happening in the West, if that makes sense. Like, it's the kind of story that would be in the background of a Sergio Leone film or a Jonah Hex comic.

I was reminded of the first and only time I attempted to read Blood Meridian, and I just couldn't get through the neverending dark.

The Mortal Remains had a very Tarantinoesque feel to it.

Possibly because he's the most recent director to have a dialogue-heavy scene inside a stagecoach.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 4:48 AM on November 19, 2018


Wingless Thrush was my favorite. It was so beautiful to look at - the way the stage was set in the landscape behind it, the lighting of the stage, the way his makeup was applied, the snow. The last story was my least favorite, as it was just dialogue with no action. It felt so suffocating and formulaic.

I really liked the Tom Waits story except for that annoying thing that happens when only one actor is onscreen - they kept saying things out loud that no one would say out loud, for our benefit. I think we would have been able to figure it out without his help. Like repeatedly saying out loud how many gold bits were in each pan, and then saying that where he found the most bits was where he should start digging. And then saying that the bullet went straight through (which we could see for ourselves, because it went in his back and there it was, in front.....) and then saying that yahoooooo no organs were hit, just guts. There were several more instances but those stuck out. Yeah you could pass it off as some crazy guy who is alone so much that he talks to himself all of the time but it didn't feel like that, it felt forced.
posted by the webmistress at 6:10 AM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


"Meal Ticket" was some maximum bleakness from the maestros. Not even Dudley Dursley deserved the fate of the Wingless Thrush. (Both played by Harry Melling.)
posted by whuppy at 6:59 AM on November 19, 2018 [5 favorites]


I thought this was outstanding throughout. Even for the Coen brothers, there was an amazing amount of abrupt violence!

Buster Scuggs was just as much of a walking massacre as Anton Chiguhr, and just as prone to weird didactic monologues.

The James Franco vignette was all an elaborate set up to what could have been a single-panel New Yorker cartoon. ("First time, eh?")
posted by paper chromatographologist at 8:59 AM on November 19, 2018 [11 favorites]


The James Franco vignette was all an elaborate set up to what could have been a single-panel New Yorker cartoon. ("First time, eh?")
posted by paper chromatographologist


Well, that and the introduction of the delightful phrase "pan shot!" to the English language.
posted by the phlegmatic king at 9:10 AM on November 19, 2018 [11 favorites]


I liked that one. The pretty girl in blue, and his appreciation of the sight of her, made me think of the strawberry in the Buddhist story about the tigers.
posted by tomboko at 11:26 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


I really liked the Tom Waits story except for that annoying thing that happens when only one actor is onscreen - they kept saying things out loud that no one would say out loud, for our benefit. I think we would have been able to figure it out without his help. Like repeatedly saying out loud how many gold bits were in each pan, and then saying that where he found the most bits was where he should start digging.

Sometimes people who are alone for extended periods of time talk out loud to themselves because silence starts to get to them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:40 PM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


hi please ignore the fact that i totally overlooked how you already said that about people who are alone talking to themselves i think i've been out in the texas sun too long kthxbye
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:41 PM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


a conversational element that pinged off of the rhetorical armor of already having been said? in terms of MeFi discussions, that sounds like
...
...
...
...
a pan shot

posted by the phlegmatic king at 1:47 PM on November 19, 2018 [6 favorites]




Now that I think about it, it's a real shame they released this movie two weeks after Halloween. PAN SHOT!
posted by MrBadExample at 5:43 PM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


I loved this, just as I love every other Coen Brothers movie I've seen and the book of short stories that Ethan Coen wrote, "Gates of Eden". I loved all of the stories and I don't like westerns, although I watched far too many of them as a child on Saturday arvo tv so feel like I recognise everything.

Thank you for pointing out who the Wingless Thrush was! I loved that one most of all, probably because 'Spangle' by Gary Jennings is a guilty pleasure of mine.
posted by h00py at 4:35 AM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


Buster Scruggs reminds me of Lance White, the Tom Selleck recurring character on Rockford Files, who has basically wandered in from a different, trope-ier universe. And The Kid is immediately recognizable as actually dangerous to Buster because he's the only other one who exists according to the same rules as he does.
posted by ckape at 8:32 AM on November 20, 2018 [8 favorites]


We watched this last night, and I'm still trying to decide if I liked it. Most certainly the film is chock-a-block with patented Coen Bros. style, direction, and patois, which makes it very likeable and easily accessible. That said...I'm a bit mixed.

I kind of tired of the seeming running "gag" of how many different head-shots the FX crew could devise. I'm not exactly sure what the point was, but it seemed like they went out of their way to explore that particular shot.

Meal Ticket was dark as pitch and really good. Harry Melling owned it. Yeah, you kind of knew where the story was going pretty early in, but the ride was so compelling thanks almost entirely to Melling's eyes.

The Gal Who Got Rattled was the one story that truly seemed to be a complete, fully-fleshed story, and really paid-off the illustration that introduced the piece. Zoe Kazan was wonderful as Alice and it was such a heartbreak at the end (though you knew it was coming as soon as Mr. Arthur told her what to do with the gun, doing Chekhov proud.)

All Gold Canyon kind of left me unsatisfied. I kept hoping for a more ironic ending. Something more "man against nature." But, in hindsight, that's just not what this movie was about.

Near Algodones...Best long set-up and punch line ever. We had no clue we were being set-up for a joke and laughed. our. asses. off. Just brilliant.

Mortal Remains...meh. I don't think it paid-off very well. The ending seemed a little unsure and muddled. Or, maybe they meant for it to be bluntly ambiguous?

Anyway...It's well worth a look.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:33 AM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


I had major flashbacks to 70s-era tv Disney during the Tom Waits segment. Everything about it (except the whole shooting thing ofc....) was like watching The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday night after dinner. The opening and closing shots especially - the butterflies around the wildflowers, flying away, the deer running away, the fish scooting, all to happily return at the end as the panhandler disappears back into the brush. It was kind of enchanting in a way. I just felt major homage being paid to Walt in that episode, as with Tarentino in Mortal Remains.
posted by the webmistress at 11:01 AM on November 20, 2018 [14 favorites]


"Don't listen to him, Dan/
"He's a Devil not a Man/
"And he fills the burning sand/
"With Water!
"Cool, clear water!"

Buster's horse was named Dan. Just sayin'.

There is so much to unpack in the first segment. 1950's singing cowboy vs. 1960's Spaghetti Western cowboys vs. 1970's singing cowboy. And the Cool Water solo... temptation and illusion... that set the tone for the entire film.

Liam Neeson's character was swindled, and so doubled down into destruction and damnation.

The last segment, if you're cthonic averse, as in you really want to NOPE out in treatments of the after-death of people who may or may not deserve what they get when life ends, skip it. The ambiguity is amazing.

I also feel Native Americans and African Americans and Latinos and women were all really underserved by this film. I get it, it's a dissection of Western Movies rather than an examination of the Old West. But, really, if Tarantino's worst film ever, also set in the old west, is more inclusive than yours, stop and re-assess.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:37 PM on November 20, 2018 [12 favorites]




A proper ending would have been for Liam Neeson to discover, too late, that the mathemachicken was a trick that didn't rely on the chicken at all

I don't know - that would have turned the whole rest of the story into just a setup for a cheap twist ending. Ending where it did, you come away thinking about two people in a tragic relationship. With that ending you'd end up pondering the chicken.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 10:03 PM on November 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


Even with the actual ending, I felt like it was still the case that he got swindled (is this something that actually needs to be demonstrated on screen? How much doubt do you actually have that the chicken is just a hoax?) and a helpless person died because of it.
posted by LionIndex at 6:31 AM on November 21, 2018 [3 favorites]


I've watched the first three and they held no charm for me, save Stephen Root, a stray line from Buster, and a couple bits that were better appreciated in the trailer.

I think neither a woman nor a person of color has had a speaking role, unless you count the yelps of raiding Natives. I know the last two have women as lead characters, and I'm vaguely interested in watching Tom Waits pan for gold, just to see a slice of what I assume his home life is like but I cannot bring myself to hit play. The first three were sooooo dull.
posted by mountmccabe at 5:51 PM on November 21, 2018


One other item I realized after dwelling on the film...In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs...the first bit in the outlaw saloon in the middle of nowhere is a straight-up homage to The Outlaw Josey Wales. Specifically, the scene where Wales enters a similar such saloon and ends up shooting most of the occupants. Thankfully, the Coens left out the gang-raping of a native woman going on in a corner.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:27 AM on November 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


The Buster Scruggs segment feels to me like a more charming Deadpool, and I love the Bugs Bunny touches like when he pats the dust off himself and leaves a Buster-shaped dust cloud. The only thing with that segment is, I wish we had that character and that world with a different story because there wasn't much there. I could see a series of Buster Scruggs shorts in the style of Looney Tunes being amazing.
posted by jason_steakums at 10:57 AM on November 25, 2018 [5 favorites]


Meal Ticket perhaps had merits, but as a story that had an obvious and inevitable ending and just made a dude suffer, I can't say I want to see it again.
posted by Going To Maine at 7:03 AM on November 26, 2018 [3 favorites]


(I do actually think Meal Ticket had a lot of merits! Even if it dragged, it’s hard to forget, and I consider hard-to-forgetness generally a decent rough proxy for “artistic merit”. I just also think it made me feel bad and wasn’t worth the cost.)
posted by Going To Maine at 8:09 AM on November 26, 2018 [5 favorites]


There's a lot of Beckett in here, isn't there? The overarching theme is the essential pointlessness of human existence (most of them involve the death of the main character as a sort of non-sequiteur), Tom Waits' character makes me think of Film or possibly Krapp, the relationship between the Impresario and the Artist is reminiscent of Pozzo and Lucky - in fact, those actors would work just as well as Hamm and Clov. I definitely think Harry Melling should look into doing some Beckett.

I won't be the first to say this, but isn't Colorado beautiful?
posted by Grangousier at 11:27 AM on November 26, 2018 [6 favorites]


"everything goes wrong" is the overarching theme of all Coen work. Joss Whedon kills off characters to hurt you, buck conventions that leads shouldn't die, and jack up the stakes. The Coens kill people because, man, that's just what happens.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:55 PM on November 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


"Meal Ticket" was some maximum bleakness from the maestros. Not even Dudley Dursley deserved the fate of the Wingless Thrush. (Both played by Harry Melling.)

ARE. YOU. KIDDING. ME.
That is just wonderful.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 2:09 PM on December 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


Oh man, I mostly hated this. I got forced to watch it. Buster Scruggs was funny. The second one was still pretty amusing. After that #'s 3 and 4 just dragged on and on and on and on and on and on. #5 I liked because of Zoe Kazan until the awful ending. By #6 I just wanted this to end already so I could politely take my leave.

Why the hell would you make something so slow? It's Netflix. I didn't pay extra to watch it. Had I been by myself I would have turned #3 the hell off already.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:27 PM on December 6, 2018 [1 favorite]


Well I kinda liked almost all of them, though they all engaged both my "get on with it" and then "really that's it?" responses, a little bit. I liked pausing to read from the book and I might have enjoyed the experience substantially less without that framing device, somehow.

Buster Scruggs: I'm easily won over by clever violence, so I'll just lick the icing off this one, not that it's much of anything else. Probably could have been the last one.

Near Algodenes: A western from a Native American perspective would be neat huh? But we're in genre-land... "First time?" is such a good line, and I love to see Jimmy James in things. Also nice of them to honor the anniversary of PUBG by introducing pan shots to the benighted throngs of Coen brothers fandom.

Meal Ticket: the orator is so completely passive that this feels more like allegory than characters and it's kind of endurable that way for me. I was joking with my SO that this was Barton Fink in miniature, so we argued about who is the chicken.

All Gold Canyon: I lied above, this one didn't make me have to engage anti-boredom measures and it felt like the right amount of story. I love a visible measure of progress. I'm dumb and I need things to be easy for me. The Disney short film observation above is right on, though it's off-brand enough to feel like different moral rules.

The Gal Who Got Rattled: It was interesting to me how Knapp wasn't much material help to Alice, despite how right their little courtship felt and the narrative pull there. Knapp can't face down an extortionate boy; would like to kill her dog (but then can't or won't? mercy is indistinguishable from incompetence in a ruthless world); doesn't notice she's gone. Alice is the center of the story but removes herself from it, she's not in the final picture.

Mortal Remains: The tedious trapper's ramblings felt like the only non-tedious part to me. Sorry Lacey, Unforgiven guy, Domnhall Spawner, and Lil Fiennes.
posted by fleacircus at 3:51 AM on December 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


Yes, lots of Beckett here.

Well, I loved it. But I love the genre and the Coen Brothers. The love story broke my heart a little. Also, “Hello, Mr. Pocket!”
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 3:17 PM on December 19, 2018


Saw this the other day. I was mostly turned off by how relentlessly nihilistic it was, but we came up with an interesting theory about The Gal Who Got Rattled: everything that happens out of sight of the wagon train is a lie. It's pretty reasonable to suppose that the dog didn't actually run away from Knapp; he just said that it ran off to spare Alice's feelings. So, by the same token, it's reasonable to suppose that Arthur actually killed Alice himself to make sure that Knapp didn't leave him alone. Another hint that this theory is true is that Arthur checks for the hobble in his bag, to make sure that he can carry out his plan.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 2:44 PM on December 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


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