The Cohen Brothers are at it again. The Academy Award-winning directors and writers once more don the Stetson and spurs, as they saddle onto another cowboy feature with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
The newest notch in their filmography is an anthology of short films eponymously named after the first segment. After a short theatrical run, this film recently made its way onto Netflix. Though the six 20 minute short films are unique in their own way, they bring in the Cohen Brothers trademark dark humour, beautiful cinematography, and take on mortality.
Though they differ in more ways than not, they are ultimately Cohen Brothers productions. The series starts off with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a story about an overly polite singing cowboy clad in white, with a violent streak. It’s an homage to the Hollywood golden age classic, with a hint of Warner Brothers cartoons thrown in. It’s colourful, silly, and full of songs and blood. The movie ends with The Mortal Remains, a stagecoach ride riddled with strangers contemplating life and love, mimicking a stage play. Every character has their own agenda and philosophy, and are required to share the same journey. Despite their vast number of differences, they work well together.
Sometimes, anthologies are just connected by a simple theme like “horror”, “love”, or in a meta sense, “film”. At first glance, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is simply a western anthology. Each story has classic tropes: cool hats, shootouts, gravelly accents, and epic acts of defenestration. But, deeper down, each story deals with the concepts of death, life, and ultimately change. Some of the characters accept death with a shrug of the shoulders and a “what can ya do?” attitude. Others accept their fate half-heartedly, knowing that they would love to have done more, but understand it’s their time. It’s also important to understand that neither attitude is right or wrong. They are, simply, different.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs excels as an anthology without having a real agenda. The Cohen Brothers are not trying to prove a point, or change the way the audience thinks. They are simply displaying a buffet of ideologies and philosophies as a taste. They want to tell stories, and give a love letter to the western genre. They want to show that the vehicle of a story doesn’t define its moral center. Just like many of their films, death and change are inevitable; and sometimes bad luck is just around the corner. The concept of mortality in No Country for Old Men is far different than it’s in The Big Lebowski. The fact that the Cohen Brothers wrote and directed every chapter and never used a character or setting more than once, makes the move that much better.
It’s difficult to say which episode stands out the most. In their own way, they are all solid. Even the degree of comedy varies from clever witticisms to full on slapstick pratfalls. Preferring one over another will depend on the audience’s inclination, and depend if they are in the mood for something serious, or something a little sillier. This is probably where the movie might lose some watchers. There will definitely be some uncomfortable scenes that travel into the Kafkaesque, which can ultimately ruin a good mood. Some stories can get quite bleak, and turn people off but, luckily, the chapters aren’t too long, so the dread is manageable.
The Ballad of Busters Scruggs is an iconic homage and love letter to westerns and the Cohen Brothers films by these same Cohen Brothers. With their unique sense of wit and intelligence, they have created a stunning movie of morality in six uniquely different stories. Fans of westerns will love this film, fans of Cohen Brothers will love this film, and fans of both must make this on top of their must watch and rewatch list.