New Stories

Stream Your Heart Out: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

by Rob Carlson

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a brand new Netflix original film by the legendary Coen Brothers. The two-hour film is a collection of short stories, each inspired by something as light-hearted as a western film trope or as dark and cruel as the reality of early western expansion in America.

The first story follows the film’s namesake, a wandering singer and gunslinger called Buster Scruggs, played by Tim Blake Nelson of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” fame. This portion of the movie is an homage to and a parody of the spaghetti western genre, complete with one-liners, ragtime music, pistol spinning, impossible trick shots, and a couple of duels. Nothing signals the dark tone of the movie yet, especially since most of this segment is scored by Scruggs’s own major-key music.

Hints of despair begin in the second story of the film, which is about the misfortunes of a nameless bank robber played by James Franco. After his attempt at knocking over a bank is foiled by a crazed teller armored with pots and pans, he is to be hanged. As the hangman is delivering our robber’s sentence, the posse is set upon by native americans, who kill all but the man about to swing. After being rescued and abandoned by a cattle rustler in the course of a few hours, the robber is captured and convicted once more, and we are left with a blank screen when the gallows fall.

The following story covers the exploitation of a limbless man in a travelling show who is tossed from a bridge by his caretaker and boss, played by Liam Neeson, in favor of a chicken that can count, because it will earn more than a disabled thespian.

The one after has an aging prospector shot in the back as soon as he finds a vein of gold.

The penultimate shows the unnessecary suicide of a young woman on the Oregon trail during an attack by a native American war party that would soon be repelled.

The final story ends up being a a western take on the crossing between life and the afterlife.

I liked this movie a lot, the shift in tone was properly paced and the dialogue and camerawork was incredible. But that’s all obvious, because it’s the Coen brothers. I could’ve done without the outdated portrayal of Native Americans as savages, though.

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