‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ review: Netflix’s Coen Brothers film is an inconsistent good time

The Coen Brothers anthology film effort, available on Netflix, provides some truly memorable and heart wrenching stories, perhaps with the best being “The Gal Who Got Rattled”. Pictured are the main characters of the story, Alice (Zoe Kazan) and Billy (Bill Heck), who offer absolutely perfect performances. 

An inconsistent albeit quality anthology film from Joel and Ethan Coen

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” directed by the Coen Brothers, from “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski,” is a western anthology film comprising of six stand-alone short stories. The titular Ballad, “Near Algodones,” “Meal Ticket,” “All Gold Canyon” and “The Mortal Remains.” The stories are all truly separate in the normal way, and some of them are much better than others.

The stories, while all have quality, don’t hold a candle to the best ones, such as “All Gold Canyon,” starring Tom Waits, and “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” starring Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck and Grainger Hines. These stories exemplify what makes the Coen Brothers so good and unique moments of black comedy, always embodying much sincerity.

Waits’ story is one of a older man panning for gold, and Kazan and Co’s tells one of a woman and her dog, President Pierce. These stories both are some of the best short films I have ever seen, managing to attach you to one-off characters in a short amount of time and provide compelling stories to boot. To explain the plots any further would be a disservice, as these are best seen with as little information as possible. Waits, who makes an amazing, but short-lived return to the screen, is immediately as lovable as he always has been. Kazan and Co’s performances were perfect too.

Then there are the other stories. While not nearly as good as the first two discussed, they’re still of value. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” starring Tim Blake Nelson as Scruggs, and also featuring Clancy Brown among others, is the opening story, and honestly one of my least favorite of the stories presented. I have a feeling the story is to be interpreted, but at face value, Scruggs is written to be incredibly annoying and repulsive, and it hindered much of my enjoyment of the story, as it focused on him the entire time. Nelson did his job perfectly, but it is certain I am going to have to sit on for a while, as I really couldn’t get over the cut of the characters’ rather insufferable jib, but I want to dig deeper on what the story is saying.

Then there is “Near Algodones,” starring James Franco and Stephen Root. The short immediately suffers when in comes to suspension of disbelief due to Franco and the controversy surrounding him, but other than that I really enjoyed it. There really isn’t much to say except that it isn’t terrible.

“Meal Ticket,” starring Liam Neeson and Harry Melling, tells an incredibly depressing story, that’s length really doesn’t do any favors. I have seen many arguments that this is everybody’s least favorite of the bunch, and I would be inclined to agree. It goes on for too long, and is not as good as the first two (“Scruggs” and “Algodones”), but is similar to the last story, “The Mortal Remains.”

Starring Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Saul Rubinek and Chelcie Ross. It is a bottle story, taking place entirely in a stagecoach, and is simply just a long amount of well written dialogue. The thing that sets its apart is its gothic mood, and definitely shares that mood with Meal Ticket.

Overall, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” requires some thinking about themes and symbolism to fully enjoy the story, but the Waits and Kazan stories are undoubtedly awesome, even upon first viewing. That being said, I think the rest of them probably require some internet research or time to think about the stories, but I am inclined to say even after that, the Waits and Kazan stories are the best, and even though the others may be off putting. I would say “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is worth wasting an hour or two on, and even if I don’t necessarily love all the stories, all of them definitely have a heart to them.