Film Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen Brothers’ Western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is uneven, but entertaining overall. The best chapters are hugely enjoyable. 

In this series of Western vignettes, a bank robber meets his match, a man searches for gold, a woman sets off on the Oregon trail, and strangers begin chatting on a coach…

A collection of six distinct stories, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs features a variety of genres all set within a Western framework. Telling various stories, writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen have plenty of scope to explore different themes and different tones. The film covers the gambit of moods, from the highly amusing first chapter to the bleak third chapter, and the unsettling final segment. 

The opening chapter, which the film takes as its title, is pure brilliance. It is a hilarious episode, showcasing the best of the Coen Brothers’ talents. The writing is great throughout, with characters being drawn quickly but with sufficient depth. The dialogue is also excellent, providing laughs, tension, or anguish where necessary. 

Given the episodic nature of the film, it is easy filmmakers to flit between genres. The episodes that are most successful are the ones that go for a stronger genre. The first, third, fifth and sixth chapters are much more memorable than the second and fourth. The difference between the tone between the first and last is markedly different, yet both work very well. 

Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is great, making the most of the vast plains and natural light. Attention to detail is faultless in terms of set design and costumes. Amongst the large cast, a few actors stand out. Tim Blake Nelson is wonderful as the title character, while Chelcie Ross and Tyne Daly are highlights in the final chapter.

If every chapter was as good as the film’s best vignettes, then The Ballad of Buster Scruggs would be an outstanding movie. Given the unevenness, the film falls short of this yet still remains likeable.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2018.