21st Nov2018

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Review (Netflix)

by Jak-Luke Sharp

Stars: Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Ralph Ineson, Tim Blake Nelson, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek | Written by Jack London, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen | Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

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Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest cinematic venture offers a few firsts for the renowned auteurs in their illustrious careers. A first for the pair to shoot digitally rather than on film and their first dabble on a streaming site in a Netflix exclusive. However, even in the vein of exciting possibility and different roads explored, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is perhaps their biggest disappointment and misfire in some time. Possibly even the worst entry throughout their often glorious and chaotic filmography.

The issues that arise from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is both structure and pacing. Taking an anthology approach which evolved from an intended short series for Netflix, ultimately developed into a full-fledged anthology film due to the amount of footage shot. Each short undoubtedly has its own persona and life. Certain sequences more so than others concerning depth in emotional consequence or intrigue and engagement, especially in the latter half of the film. Yet even with such intriguing premises, the anthology angle, in what begins in similar quirky nonsensical terms of previous exploits, ultimately slowly but surely melds into an elongated bore due to farcical long winded sequences that while tragic and hilarious offer very little in terms of cohesive strength.

It is the latter stories that create very little engagement via underwhelming writing and characters present with a constant drag and endless sham circumstance that stagnates. An issue prevalent in short films that fail to inject any form of creative writing and excitement in the material. An anthology structure while on paper sounds delightful to the directors’ talent, does little to impress or entertain in the execution of the picture. It lacks a great deal of restraint in terms of storytelling and thematic writing, a plight that has plagued certain work from the Coens with The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty and Hail, Ceasar. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is undoubtedly on the tip of the tongue of that conversation and considering the production curve of crafting a feature. The final product is a vastly inferior, Frankenstein inspired mess.

A tragic almost blasphemous element to propose upon the wonderfully witty and haunting writing of the Coen Brothers work. Via this entry having elements of the pairs DNA without the renowed conviction of their greatest work. The stagnation with the anthology structure deeply affects the pacing and therefore damages the overall piece via a deeply stretched out and underwhelming virture of entertainment that does crop up in fabulous moments but is so far and few in between, relegating itself through stark depictions of genres that don’t meld well what-so-ever and significantly bore the spectators.

Another element that severely underwhelms the production is the decision to shoot digitally and turn their back on film, presumably a mutual decision between the Coens and Netflix that has a disastrous result on the films thematic implications and compelling nature of the stories told. It feels more so a companion piece to Seth McFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West, more so to that of True Grit or Scott Cooper’s Hostiles. A barbaric and terrible comparison but ultimately the dire level that the Coens have dropped to.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is available on Netflix now.

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