Joel and Ethan Coen's 'Ballad of Buster Scruggs' : All six shorts reviewed.

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Joel and Ethan Coen‘s "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" was supposed to be a six-part Netflix anthology series, but it was then announced, right before the Venice Film Festival, that it would premiere and be released as a 132 minute feature-length film using the structure of an anthology. Any new work by the Coens should instantly be an automatic must-see for any serious cinephile. 'Buster Scruggs' is no exception. I've decided to review each of the six segments 0f the film and rate them based on their own merits. It's the only way to truly dissect the latest work from a directing duo that has become, quite possibly, the best working filmmakers in the world.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

  • Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs
  • Willie Watson as The Kid
  • David Krumholtz as Frenchman in Saloon

One of the very best moments in the Coen film happens when a bar saloon erupts in a gut-butslingly terrific sing-along, started by the quickest gunslinger of the Wild West Buster Scruggs (a terrific Tim Blake Nelson). The Roy Rogers-clad Scruggs is very much a token cowboy; riding on horseback, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing his beautiful baritone as he rides in the desert. He is, however, also a wanted man, having killed his fair share of enemies along his destinationless trek. He speaks to the camera, breaking the wall, conveying his story to us in narrative form. However, don't mistake his pleasant demeanor for anything but facade, Buster is a wanted man, deadly to whomever crosses his path.  The surprises in this opening short are almost too deliciously rendered to detail without giving away too much -- but it does start the Coen anthology on the right note. Scruggs' kills are expertly delivered in surprisingly slapstick ways. And how about them beautiful landscapes shot by DP extraordinaire Bruno Delbonnel? Breathtaking. [A-]
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Near Algodones

  • James Franco as Cowboy
  • Stephen Root as Teller
  • Ralph Ineson as The Man in Black

James Franco's mysterious "Cowboy" tries to rob a bank, the heist goes wrong, an unexpected turn occuring when the bank's dorky teller (a hilarious Stephen Root) turns out to be armed, and wackily-armored, to a tee. This bank-robbing, comanche-attacking, noose-dangling short has the Coens tackling mortality once again, which turns out to be the key thematic connection that binds all six shorts in 'Buster Scruggs'. The misfortunes of Franco's cowboy keep piling up, wait until you see the bank teller's armored getup to fight the  gunshots off, only those kooky Coens could imagine a thing like that. It all leads to a final shot that subsides any kind of explaining for a more Coen-esque outlook on life's simple pleasures. At this point, we're hooked. What could possibly come next? [B+]
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Meal Ticket

  • Liam Neeson as Impresario
  • Harry Melling as Artist

How about Liam Neeson as a solmen traveling showman? Known as impressario in the press notes, Neeson's character has an exhibit which features an armless, legless man (Harry Melling) which, he claims, was “found on the streets of London.” The show that he makes this severely handicapped man perform is one in which Whit Stillman's poetry, Shakespeare, the Bible, and, for goodness sake, the Gettysburg Address are recited. The audiences start off strong but dwindle away as the shtick grows tiresome. The dialogue in this story is kept at a minimum, repetition is shown, the same lines being uttered by the poor, happless amputee. Neeson's showman is ventriloquist to Melling's dummy. A visit to a brothel leads to a rather cringe-inducing affair, which leads to most treacherous of acts. "Meal Ticket" plays as a tragedy, akin to some of the many on-stage passages being read by Melling's character. Suffice to say, a chicken, of all things, comes in to put the final nail in the coffin, so to speak. Slightness aside, the best moments in "Meal Ticket" are hauntingly dreamy, and the closest the Coens have come to David Lynch territory. [B]

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All Gold Canyon

  • Tom Waits as Prospector

In "All Gold Canyon" a prospector (Tom Waits) digs and digs and digs for gold in a desserted middle-of-nowhere riverside. 
As he pans for gold, and finally finds it, Waits' scraggly, mumbling character is eventually dealt a peculiar blow to the senses. Waits, a legendary singer-songwriter, and sometimes actor, is perfectly cast in this hypnotic story of the greed and solitude that arose during the California gold rush. It turns out to be the most laidback and quirky-less chapter of the whole film. There's depth, comedy, drama and an efortlessness that will eventually be ridded off in the ensuing chapters for more strained statements from the filmmakers. [A-]

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The Gal Who Got Rattled

  • Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh
  • Bill Heck as Billy Knapp
  • Grainger Hines as Mr. Arthur
  • Jackamoe Buzzell as Another Man

Zoe Kazan is Alice Longabaugh in the film's most True Grit-esque story. She's a young Episcopalian whose overprotective brother is quickly killed off during an Oregon-bound trail. She is then romanced by Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), a good man, with good intentions and leader of the trail. Along the way, her dead brother's adorable little dog President Pierce, who can't stop barking, leads Alice to the movie's most heart-stopping shootout. The Coens allow Delbonnel to let-it-rip with his immaculate wide shots, and the kind of cinematic allure that lends well to the story's lengthier-than-usual runtime -- and I should mention that is, in fact, its major flaw. "The Gal Who Got Rattled” could have easily been a more tightly edited, especially since it clocks in, for no good reason, at almost 30 minutes. Nevertheless, that shootout is quite simply majestic. [B]

The Mortal Remains

  • Tyne Daly as Lady
  • Brendan Gleeson as Irishman
  • Jonjo O’Neill as Englishman
  • Saul Rubinek as Frenchman
  • Chelcie Ross as Trapper

The Bros wanted to end 'Buster Scruggs' on an ambiguous and thematiclly resonant note. After all, mortality runs rampant throughout the film's 132 minute runtime, how else to end it? Well, how about with a wordy, metaphorically-filled yarn. Sadly, this conclusion turns out to be the weakest story, one set on a stagecoach and saddled with blabbering and incosequential dialogue. The five stagecoachers are a middle-aged, charmless and moralistically-driven woman (Tyne Daly), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), a singing Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), a bearded weirdo (Chelcie Ross), and a bounty-hunting Englishman (Jonjo O'Neill). All five, strainingly might I add, try to metaphorically recap the events that unfolded in 'Buster Scruggs,' tackling the moral dillemas that come with life and death etc. It falls flat and, at some point, you just want to tune these yokels out. [D]

Conclusion: This is diverting, amusing, slight film, but with first-rate filmmaking on display. A good but minor work from the Coens. However, when I exited the theater I couldn't help but feel as if this would have been better suited as an episodic series rather than the anthology they decided in creating instead. Alas, we now have to include "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" as part of the Coen cinematic oeuvre, an addition that will likely be part of the lower-tier works from the Brothers, but that doesn't necesarilly mean it's not worthy of a watch. Au contraire mes amis, there are some impressive moments in this film and you'd be ill-advised to miss them, especially since it will available to stream on November 16th. [Overall grade: B]