Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs


I will not say that the Coen brothers never strike out (see—or rather, don’t see—The Ladykillers), but their batting average is just about the highest of anyone currently writing and directing films. This one is no exception, a long home run right out of the park. It’s an anthology film, said to be a collection of stories the Coens have been thinking about for a long time, none of them quite substantial enough to base an entire movie on. So instead, they have put together six short stories, all set in the American West. Naturally, some are better than others, though I liked them all. If I have any complaint, it is that they loaded the two best stories (in my opinion) right at the beginning. The stories are:

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” The best of a good lot. Tim Blake Nelson is a ludicrous “singing cowboy” in a 20-gallon hat wide enough for a dozen Mexicans to dance on. He walks into the nastiest, filthiest, dirtiest little cantina you’ve ever seen, populated by six of the nastiest, etc. outlaws you could ever imagine. Buster seems like an amiable dweeb with a large vocabulary, but is anything but that. He walks up to the bar and says he would like a shot of whiskey to wash the trail dust out of his gullet.

The bartender says “Whiskey’s illegal.” Pause. “This is a dry county.”

So I’m already laughing. Buster looks over to the five thugs playing cards.

“What are they drinking?”

“Whiskey.” Pause. “They’s outlaws.”

What happens next is totally unexpected. Your jaw will drop. And that is only the first of four stunning, hilarious, startling scenes crammed into this 15-minute little comic gem. Plus we get two fine songs: “Surly Joe,” and “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings,” (which is nominated for an Oscar!) (I just learned they won’t be performing all the Best Song nominees in February. Can you guess which one will get the ax?)

Buster spontaneously writes and sings “Surly Joe” in a saloon, and soon has all the patrons singing and dancing with him. Here’s one verse:

“Surly Joe! Surly Joe!
A cedilla on the C of Çurly Joe!”

“Near Algodones.” The second-best story. It’s basically a one-joke tale, but that dark joke nearly killed me, I was laughing so hard. It stars James Franco as a would-be bank robber. And that’s as far as I can go without ruining the punch line.

“Meal Ticket.” All these stories have darkness in them, and this is the darkest. Liam Neeson has a travelling sideshow, featuring his meal ticket, a man with no arms and no legs. This fellow is an accomplished orator, reciting Shakespeare, the Gettysburg address, and other “high-falutin’” stuff. The people of a series of harsh frontier towns like hearing it all. But the paying public is dwindling. What to do, what to do? There is virtually no dialog. This one is not for everyone.

“All Gold Canyon.” Tom Waits is a grizzled old prospector determined to find the source of gold he has been panning from the river, the mother lode. Again, the story takes an unexpected twist.

“The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Zoe Kazan is a timid woman on the Oregon Trail. When her brother dies from cholera, she is in a bit of a pickle. Should she go on, or turn back? This one is quite affecting, no joking around at all.

“The Mortal Remains.” Five people are in a stagecoach heading to a place called Fort Morgan. The camera never leaves the interior until the very end. So we listen in on the conversation as it slowly becomes clear that this is not an ordinary stagecoach.

I give this one five stars, two thumbs up, and/or the top tier of whatever rating system exists anywhere. You must see this one.