Netflix needs to do a better job at advertising their new films and shows. A lot of the time you have to manually search for the title you are looking for, but the thing is, you shouldn’t have to go fishing for the new Coen brothers film. It should be the first thing that pops up when you log on to Netflix. Hey, folks! We got a new Coen brothers movie here! Instead what I got listed to me was the new She-Ra series and the movie Cam.
Sure, why not have Cam listed instead of the new Coen brothers film, I’m sure the makers of Cam also won 4 Oscars. No? They haven’t you say? Shocker. I’m shocked.
So I’m going to do this review a bit differently. Seeing as this is an anthology film, featuring 6 vignette short stories, that’s how I’ll break this review down as well. Vignette reviews!
The thing about anthology movies, you’re bound to run into a few stinkers in the mix. And The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is no different.
Out of the 6 stories, two I really didn’t care for at all. This wouldn’t be that big of an issue for me, if not for the fact that one of the stories I didn’t like, was the one they decided to end the movie on. It felt like the film deflated, like someone let the air out of the balloon while still trying to hang it up.
The second to last vignette, which was also my favorite, ends with an exciting climax, if not also harshened a bit by the sour bitter ending.
And if they ended things with that story, I’d be relatively happy. It’s an anthology film after all, you don’t like one story, don’t fret as it will only last a few minutes until the next one comes around.
The first short chapter in this collection of stories, and I mean short, is The Ballade of Buster Scruggs, an outlaw who looks like he stepped off an old cheesy Hollywood western. It’s a close second to my favorite story or chapters as they’re labelled here but the short length and the fact the whole damn film is named after this one guy and story, it kind of knocks this short down a peg or two for me.
But! Having said that, I enjoyed just how different this one was from the others. It felt less like a parable like the others and more like an homage to those cheesy westerns where the protagonist is clearly wearing a costume, singing terrible songs and wearing a goofy smile.
It felt like one of those movies Josh Brolin’s character from Hail, Caesar! was overseeing.
Buster is an outlaw, but you wouldn’t have guessed it by just looking at him. He wears an all-white outfit, has an aloof aw shucks personality. He also has a fondness for breaking out into song whenever the chance presents itself.
Him and Dan, his trusty white horse, are traveling through the hot dry desert, singing a song about finding water, when it hits Buster that a small cantina isn’t far from them. A nice place for them to rest their spurs and have a drink.
But as he makes his way inside, he instantly stands out. As he might be stuck in a bad 1950’s western, his fellow outlaws are not.
Refusing to serve him, Buster irks one of these outlaws, shooting him and his friends down quicker than a blink of an eye. Buster even guns down the bartender, who was reaching for his shotgun.
With that little distraction out of the way, Buster finally makes it to town where he must first hand over his guns before entering the saloon. Not everyone got the memo as when Buster refuses to play a leaving player’s hand of cards, he gets a gun pulled on him.
With no options, Buster kicks a loose board on the table, forcing Curly Joe, to shoot himself in the face.
That’s what I liked about this short story, you have this main character who looks like he belongs in an Elvis western, who violently murders people left and right. He sings and dances and blows your brains out.
Speaking of singing and dancing, it’s time for another song, this time celebrating his victory over Curly Joe. The only one not pleased by this was Curly’s brother, who calls Buster out, challenging him to a duel.
At this point we’ve seen just how quick Buster is with a gun, so we know how this is going to play out. Curly’s brother asks for a countdown, resulting in Buster shooting off 5 of his fingers, leaving one for his heart, which he takes with a quick shot behind his shoulder, while looking through a hand mirror.
Buster however meets his match when a lone gunman comes to town playing a harmonica, wearing all black. He hears tell that Buster is the gunslinger to beat, in shooting and in singing, so he challenges him to a duel.
And before Buster can even get ready, he gets a bullet in the head. This kickstarts the final song, as Buster gets his wings and flies up to heaven, bested by a quicker gun.
It was violent, funny and I enjoyed the musical numbers. My only issue I had with it was how damn short it was. I doubt it was more than 15 minutes. In the end, I really wished the whole movie was just this, us following around Buster Scruggs as he gleefully murdered and sang. But that’s just me, I guess.
The second chapter, this one starring James Franco as a passing cowboy who stumbles upon a small bank out in the middle of nowhere. Out of curiosity he goes inside to check it out.
Once inside he sees a single elderly bank clerk. The opportunity is just too good to pass up, so Franco pulls his gun and continues to rob the bank, only to have the clerk blast three shotguns at him, hidden behind the counter.
The clerk takes off while Franco gathers as much cash as he can stuff into his bag.
Once outside however he’s shot at, having to take cover behind a drinking well. Not seeing where the shots are coming from Franco makes a break for it, only to find the clerk has adorned himself with cast iron pots and pans, humorously yelling out PAN SHOT! each time a shot Franco fires ricochets off.
The crazy old clerk gets the better of him, knocking him out. When Franco wakes, he finds himself at the mercy of the local sheriff with a rope around his neck.
Just as they are about to hang him, Indians attack and murder everyone, but leave Franco unharmed. Seeing as he’s about to be hung anyways, they figure leaving him is the crueler thing to do.
Thankfully, a passing cattle rancher passes by and helps him to get free. But it’s starting to seem like Franco has the best worst luck as this guy wasn’t a cattle rancher but a cattle thief, haven stolen the cattle he is wrangling. The wrestler takes off, leaving Franco to pay for his crimes, getting sentenced to be hung once again. This time nothing prevents it.
Another short story, possibly no longer than 15 minutes either. I never checked the length of these shorts, so don’t quote me on it. This one and Buster Scruggs are two of the best, but they also feel like the shortest.
Now for the most disappointing of the chapter stories, titled Meal Ticket. This one stars Liam Neeson of all people. You got Liam Neeson for your western and you do absolutely nothing with him, but have him stand around silently and then eventually get drunk.
The main issue I had with this story was the fact it’s just so damn boring. All it is is watching an armless and legless man recite Shakespeare in front of a handful of yokels.
The plot is simple, Liam Neeson runs a traveling sideshow, where a man who is essentially just a head on a torso acts out plays and reads poetry to a very small audience. They go from town to town, each passing the crowds get smaller and smaller until Liam Neeson notices a giant crown forming around a chicken that can count.
Seeing this as a much more profitable venture, Liam buys the chicken and drops armless legless off a bridge, drowning him.
And that’s it for the story. It felt like a full 30 minute short, or maybe it felt that way because the only real dialogue we ever get is from armless legless reading Shakespeare or reciting poetry. It just goes on and on with no real direction until the chicken comes into play.
This chapter alone I say SKIP. It isn’t worth your time and there are better chapters to get to.
Now that that unpleasant and boring experience is over with, it’s time to watch an old man panhandle for gold… I found this one oddly fascinating. As a kid, on a class fieldtrip I once went panhandling, it was pretty cool actually. The most you’d ever find were tiny flecks of gold. It wasn’t worth anything, but it was fun to see it shining back at you once you’ve swished away all the mud.
Maybe because of that I found myself appreciating this story more and not bored to tears like I was listening to poetry recited to me like in the last story.
This chapter stars Tom Waits as an old prospector, searching the riverbank for a pocket of gold. I say it’s Tom Waits, but he might as well be playing Nick Nolte. He looks like Nick Nolte, sounds like Nick Nolte… it’s fucking Nick Nolte.
Anyway, this crusty old man is digging holes around the river, looking for the mother lode, but coming up with only a little here and a little there. After a few nights, he manages to strike it rich, finding the pocket he was looking for. As he is getting to the giant chunks of gold, he is shot in the back.
The scoundrel waited for him to do all the work so he could snatch it right from under him. Presumed dead, the man hops down to see what the old prospector found, only to have him still be alive, wrestling his revolver away from him.
The prospector shoots the man dead and cares for his gunshot wound. He later bags up his findings and takes off. The end.
Not really a whole lot to this one.
Finally, my favorite of the short stories. Our lead for this chapter is Alice, a mousy plain woman. She’s traveling with her brother Gilbert who has arranged for his sister Alice to be married to a rich business tycoon. The two and their dog, take a wagon train to Oregon.
Gilbert unfortunately gets stricken with a deadly case of cholera. After his death, Alice is left with no clue what to do next. She is stuck with an annoying yapping dog that everyone in the wagon train hates. She’s also stuck with being indebted to the ox handler, who Gilbert promised to pay $400 once they make it to their destination.
But it seems the money Gilbert promised the young boy was in his coat pocket, the same coat he was buried with. Having no grave marker and being miles from the burial spot, Alice is in a bit of a bind.
Since her brother’s untimely death, Alice has been turning to the wagon marshal for help, Billy Knapp. The two have taken a liking to one another and Billy offers to marry Alice to help her with her brother’s debt.
She agrees and all seems to be leading up to a happy ending… that is until Alice decides to chase after her brother’s dog, which was earlier chased off by Knapp.
The elder wagon train marshal, Mr. Arthur goes off to find her, to see she and the dog are enjoying the sight of some prairie dogs poking their heads out of their holes.
Mr. Arthur sees the danger as horses tend to break a leg in these holes. He helps Alice down when they are attacked by Indians. After holding them off in a fantastic battle, Arthur hands Alice his revolver just in case he doesn’t make it and she needs a way out. Way out being shooting yourself in the head.
The Indians attack again, their horses tripping into the prairie dogs holes. Arthur manages to take out the war chief, forcing the Indians to retreat. A few stragglers remain, one getting the better of Arthur, tackling him to the ground.
Arthur turns the tables and kills his attacker only to find that Alice took his advice to heart, shooting herself in the head thinking Arthur was done for.
A bit of a depressing ending, but still this one to me felt more like the Coen brothers we’ve come to know and love.
And now for the second worse chapter. This one takes place on a stagecoach with 5 strangers, two are bounty hunters and the others… one is an unlikable Frenchmen, the other a housewife of some preacher and a mountain man fur trapper.
Nothing of note happens in this story, they mostly take turns talking about themselves and argue. My favorite being the fur trapper, as I found him amusing. Everyone else however…
Stick this chapter right after the Liam Neeson one, just get the two worst stories over with and end on The Gal Who Got Rattled. That one even ended on a pretty scene, the wagon train leaving, Arthur and the dog standing on the hill as Knapp rides over to them in the distance…
The ending to this chapter was the bounty hunters carrying a body up the steps to their hotel while the fellow stagecoach riders look on in horror.
Very lackluster and probably could have done without the story all together.
I’d mostly suggest turning the movie off after The Gal Who Got Rattled ends.
So that about does it for this review. This is a SEE IT, but given a few of the stories included are SKIPS… maybe this is just a RENT. Seeing as it’s on Netflix, a rent is about all you can do.
It’s Thanksgiving time for us Americans, not sure what our European readers will be up to Thursday, hopefully you still get Black Friday deals, as I’ll be glued to numerous websites, checking to see what deals they have.
Next week I believe is Creed 2, so look forward to that!
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