The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Movie Review

Updated: Jan 20, 2019

Ralph Ineson as "The Man in Black" in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Image Courtesy of Netflix)

In 2018, the genre of westerns is essentially considered the extinct genre of filmmaking. While indie releases in the genre are still prevalent, notable releases have frustratingly been absent from the mass audience diet, which usually just consists of loudly obnoxious comic-book and action films. Many critics of the genre have cited that it was the failure of the genre to innovate as the reason for its downfall. However, with the Coen Brothers’s latest release, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, debuting on Netflix and in select theaters, the western genre receives a refreshing and bold take that merges satire and irony to create one of the most authentic experiences that can be found at the cinema, even more so a mobile device. Buster Scruggs features six distinct storylines and protagonists, all equally divided in the meaty 133-minute run time. Unlike other entries in the genre, this storytelling decision revolutionizes the possibilities of the film, allowing each storyline to receive the benefits of and act as a short film. And while this decision does lead to a collective experience that feels almost too disparate, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs retains its singular vision of a daunting western landscape through its multi-faceted storytelling of satirical and ironic comedy.


Image Courtesy of Netflix

As noted previously, what distinguishes Buster Scruggs from its similarly classified companions is its decision to include six storylines, all colliding seemingly as individual short films. As such, it creates a raw and fresh experience that hasn’t been seen or replicated in recent memory. It allows the storylines to feature some dauntingly bold creative decisions and tones while still maintaining the direct attention of the audience. Upon reflection however, I’m unsure if this form of storytelling should be replicated in other works with this degree.

Tom Waits as "Prospector" in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Image Courtesy of Netflix)

Easily the biggest hole in this form of the storytelling would be the world that these characters supposedly breath and murder in. But not once was I under the impression that these characters even existed in the same world due to each storyline being so vastly different from the others. It’s lead to an effect where the film becomes disjointed, weighed down by multiple films in of itself that don’t seem to belong with each other. A quick and seamless remedy to the issue could have been the Coens’ decision to insert references to other storylines, in order to maintain the sense of connectedness that the film attempts to portray with the thematic material of each arc.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

And there is certainly thematic material for any film fan to digest. Seemingly more than any other film this year, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is unapologetic for what it stands for and what it wants to express. Replicating themes from that of Quentin Tarantino’s own films, Buster Scruggs weaves together satirical comedy, bleak drama and multi-faceted irony in order to create a bold and developed screenplay. From implementing surprising deaths of pivotal characters to its mild fourth-wall-breaking moments, the film seems to never run out of fresh ideas to throw at the screen, even if those ideas never really collide together in a meaningful and satisfying manner. Portraying how dangerous and hopeless the Wild West truly was, the screenplay is earnest in how it blends its satirical comedy and bleak drama, with one aspect never outweighing another.

Jonjo O'Neill and Brendan Gleeson in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Image Courtesy of Netflix)

Featuring a star-studded cast, Buster Scruggs collects actors and performances on the caliber of recently Golden-Globe nominated actor James Franco as an unnamed cowboy and main protagonist of the second storyline to Liam Neeson portraying Impresario. For a Netflix production, the film has an impressive roster of characters and performances, all of which do a fine and commendable job of bringing the bold screenplay to the big screen.

Zoe Kazan as "Alice Longabaugh" in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Image Courtesy of Netflix)

Technically, however, it seems that the cast may have sucked the major portions of the production budget as Buster Scruggs has a rather muted and pristine look that doesn’t reflect the subject period well. For a film that takes so many risks with its storytelling and screenplay, it’s disappointing just how bland the film looks, to say nothing of the world’s lack of inter-weaving.


Image Courtesy of Netflix

Ultimately, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs collides six impeccable storylines and protagonists, featuring performances from a star-studded cast, with a lavish form of storytelling. The creative decisions it makes may be detriments, preventing the film from feeling consistent in its world and roster of characters. But even so, Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a monumental refresher for a genre that is slowly rotting to disinterest and revolutionizes it for a new modern-day audience.

Score: 7.0 out of 10

Images Courtesy of Netflix