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Movies The O.D. on Movies

The O.D. on Movies: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Rulerofowls and Couch Owl have both seen the latest Coen brothers’ movie that released on Netflix recently, called “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, and Brendan Gleeson amongst others.

  • ROW: After so much time spent in RDR2, you’d think that I would have enough of the Wild West for this year, but I had plenty of room left for a Coen brothers’ western.
  • CO: Well, a western-THEMED anthology, rather than an actual western—like No Country for Old Men or their True Grit remake.
  • ROW: Sure; much of the marketing around it showcased it as a comedy above all else, but I would disagree with that, so I just thought that western is the consistent verb to categorize and discuss this movie.
  • CO: I think comedy is a pretty consistent attempt in this movie and for the most part it pays off; some jokes don’t land as hard as others and for large segments of the movie you’re thinking more than you’re laughing, but I think the “western comedy” group is an appropriate—although a bit derivative—term for this movie.
  • ROW: As with most Coen brothers’ movies, a category just feels wrong! Also, just like other Coen brothers’ movies, this movie is either a complete success or a honorable attempt at something great; just look at their last two movies for examples of both—“Hail Caesar!” for the latter and “Inside Llewyn Davis” for the first. Which of the two was this one for you?
  • CO: This is the first Coen brothers’ movie where I’m inclined to say that it’s somewhere in the middle for me; I liked it, but I didn’t really like it (like Coens’ remake of True Grit) nor did I love it (like No Country for Old Men), however I wasn’t bored by it (like Hail Caesar!).
  • ROW: Overall it’s the same for me; some segments like the James Franco-led “Near Algodones” were really good, while others like the Liam Neeson-led “Meal-Ticket” were average at best. They all have funny bits and they are all absurd and profound in one way or another and to varying degrees, but none hits a high point of that Coen-brothers-esque dark comedy or poignant drama that they became known for with “The Big Lebowski” or “Fargo”.
  • CO: The weird thing is that I can’t say they didn’t “go for it” because they certainly have; each segment has a unique look and cast, all tackling different aspects of life in the Wild West (and human life in general), with appropriate tone and direction for the requirements of each segment and theme. All segments have really good pacing, visual metaphors, music, and writing—and while some feel less inspired than other—they are all at least good; they are well directed, well-acted, use some neat visual trickery, and have an abundance of artistic flair (like the Zoe Kazan led segment “The gal who got rattled” which hints at a tragic event and feeds the viewer information, only to reveal a shifty misdirection in the end, or “The Mortal Remains” segment which uses a very good visual appropriation to a well-known imagery to re-contextualize the scene and built on that new-found knowledge in some great ways and end spectacularly)
Thankfully, not what the actual movie looks like!
  • ROW: That’s actually a good point, because I don’t want to sound dissatisfied with the movie or the effort put into it; the Coen brothers always respected and challenged the viewer, and this movie is no different. It has to be said though: Their name and their signature on the directing, writing, and producing of a movie, brings hefty expectations as well; you expect at least a great movie and when you get a good one, you’re not really disappointed, you’re just left expecting more!
  • CO: I’ve been thinking about why we think this movie is just good; what are the actual criticisms we have of it?
  • ROW: Well, there were instances where the editing of the movie could have been better (let’s not forget this was supposed to be a series of 6 episodes, but instead we got an anthology movie of 6 segments and that has to have had an impact on what was cut from the movie); for example, there are very deliberate showings of certain characters or objects that never play out into anything meaningful or are left “unresolved”. There are also segments that feel very short or missing scenes, but because of the way the movie is paced and the story is delivered, those can be attributed to artistic decisions—and don’t really harm the flow of the movie—but maybe harm the quality of the segments on the whole.
  • CO: That’s a good point, but for me the most interesting question—and critique, I guess—is whether this collection of neat ideas, writing, and concepts would have been better served as a series, because the transition (a literal one, since the segments are framed as chapters from an actual book, that can be seen at the start and end of each segment) of each segment often feels jarring (from the light-hearted Buster Scruggs and Near Algodones segments to the poignant Meat-Ticket, and back and forth from tone to scope etc.).
  • ROW: Whatever the reason is, there are two takeaways for me: First, this movie is good enough to warrant another viewing, but not good enough to reach my hefty expectations for the next Coen brothers led movie.
  • CO: And the second?
  • ROW: I really want the actual “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” book; it looks so freaking cool!

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