The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Edwin Arnaudin: Joel and Ethan Coen’s western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has been available to stream on Netflix since mid-November and, just in time for the Oscars, the triple-nominee is getting a one-week run at the Fine Arts Theatre. We had the good fortune to catch this gem on the big screen for a press event last Fall and, responsible critics that we are, advocate for seeing every film in that setting — but why specifically should moviegoers prioritize watching this title outside of their living rooms?
Bruce Steele: Among many reasons, two stand out for me: First, it's a beautifully shot film, in the tradition of classic westerns, and the sweeping vistas and Old West streets and the occasional battle just lose so much on any screen smaller than a movie house. Second, because it tells six stories related only by setting and theme, at home there might be a tendency to treat it like TV episodes, taking breaks of minutes or days in between. It really should be seen in one uninterrupted sitting. It builds and evolves as it goes on. All the pieces come together, so to speak.
Edwin: Considering the varied notes the Coens hit from one vignette to the next, it really is a remarkably cohesive work. The gorgeous visuals by the filmmakers’ Inside Llewyn Davis cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel are a welcome constant, and the brothers’ latest batch of creative dialogue also helps unite the narratives. But yes, the flow you mention is crucial to Buster Scruggs working as a single-sitting view, and opening with Tim Blake Nelson as the titular balladeer/gunslinger wonderfully sets the film’s darkly comedic tone. Were you likewise hooked from the get-go?
Bruce: I honestly didn't know going in it was an anthology movie, so I was a bit concerned about how goofy it seemed at the start, but that segment quickly takes some clever turns to undercut the silliness, so I was onboard soon enough. It seems to me like the movie is set up to hit a variety of notes in the first four segments, leading in to the most sustained and richly developed tale, "The Gal Who Got Rattled," with your friend Zoe Kazan.
Edwin: She is indeed a delightful interview, and her chapter is the strongest of the bunch from a mature storytelling and acting standpoint. Her naive pioneer Alice and breakout star Bill Heck’s lovestruck trail guide Billy have the collection’s best chemistry, though there’s honestly not much competition. The pair’s yearning for steady companionship is a nice contrast to the loners that populate the other stories. Do you have a favorite solitary character?
Bruce: Liam Neeson, as an unnamed impresario in "Meal Ticket," isn't technically a loner, since he's paired with an unusual itinerant performer (Henry Melling, redefining himself after playing Harry Potter's bully of a cousin), but he might as well be. The roles of both Neeson and Tom Waits (in "All Gold Canyon") are nearly wordless, but they earn full emotional investment with just their restrained, expressive faces. The movie specializes in bleak circumstances and neat twist endings, both upbeat and painful. The Coens' movies are often either mad comedies or dark dramas, but I think Buster achieves a remarkable balance.
Edwin: 35 years after Blood Simple, they remain nimble filmmakers, full of surprises and willing to take risks. While I prefer their other Western foray, True Grit, I'm thrilled to see them rebound after the good, but not great Hail, Caesar! Even with an uneven final chapter — albeit one that I have a feeling will soon win me over — their latest is a Top 10 film of 2018 for me and gets an A-minus.
Bruce: They've had a few movies that didn't connect with me, but the number of real masterpieces on their resume may be unmatched by any other filmmakers of their generation. Time will tell, but I think The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may join that list. I give it an A.
Grade: A. Rated R. Starts Feb. 15 at the Fine Arts Theatre