Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

PLOT: Joel and Ethan Coen return to the Old West with this brand new anthology featuring a singing cowboy by the name of Buster Scruggs. The six stories include a traveling stage show, a sweet romance with a bit of doom, a prospector looking for gold and a few other tales with a ton of mayhem thrown in.

REVIEW: Nobody brings the Old West back to life quite like Joel and Ethan Coen. Whether it's a tale of vengeance like their thrilling retelling of TRUE GRIT or a more modern tale of murder and violence with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the Coen Brothers have crafted tales that transcend the genre. With their latest, the two have partnered with Netflix for an audacious return to the days of lawlessness and cowboys. This six part anthology features all the trademarks that have made the siblings two of the most important filmmakers working today. This includes impressive cinematography courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel – who previously worked with them on INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS – and a rousing score by Carter Burwell who has worked with the brothers several times before. As well, you’ll find some of the most exciting casting that you are likely to see in any feature film this year. This is THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS.

The first of the six stories also happens to be one of the best. The opening segment appropriately titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” introduces us to the man, the myth and the legend, Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson). As Buster rides the countryside on his horse, he carries a guitar as he sings a catchy old tune. However, we soon realize that Buster is not quite the happy-go-lucky fella he appears to be. This segment mixes a little bit of musical with a whole lot of shoot ‘em up, and it also features the impressive Clancy Brown and a glorious cameo by Willie Watson from the bluegrass/folk band Old Crow Medicine Show. This is wild and rambunctious opening with great tunes, and a whole lot of bloodshed. And it is only the beginning of the many twists and turns each of the short stories explore.

the ballad of buster scruggs netflix joel coen ethan coen tim blake nelson james franco liam neeson anthology westernIn "Near Algodones,” James Franco plays a bank-robber that makes a poor choice when he decides to rob a small establishment with an all too friendly teller played by Stephen Root. This episode features one of the most creative hanging attempts you are likely to see. The scene is equally as humorous as it is nerve-wracking. Franco is terrific as a man who seemingly comes close to losing his lucky streak, and Root gives one of the wildest performances in the film – and that is saying something. This is perhaps one of the funniest stories, and one that continues to go down an unexpected path. And yes, just like the previous tale, there is a bit of gruesome goings on during a surprisingly intense attack from a local tribe of Indians.

If you thought it was wild before, wait until you get a look at "Meal Ticket.” This oddball story presents us with Liam Neeson as a man who runs a traveling show. His star? Well frankly I’d rather let you get a look at this one yourself without spoiling anything. While every single story here features a twist or a bit of a shock, this one is incredibly strange and wonderfully dark. And if memory serves, Mr. Neeson doesn’t have a single line in the episode – perhaps a grunt or something like that is all. It does feature a touching performance by Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley is the Harry Potter franchise). If you are hoping for a little Coen Brothers edge, you’ll most assuredly get that here. The final sequence in this one is heartbreakingly demented.

the ballad of buster scruggs netflix joel coen ethan coen western anthology james franco liam neeson tom waits“All Gold Canyon” is another favorite of mine. This segment features the great Tom Waits as a prospector seeking gold in an area untouched by man. Considering that nearly the entire episode features Mr. Waits digging holes and searching for wealth, it is also incredibly endearing. The actor/singer/performer disappears into the role and it is a joy to behold. While every segment takes an unusual turn at some point, this one has one of the best endings in the anthology. And yes, this can be easily spoiled so I’ll leave it to you to check it out and see if you agree. While it is beautifully shot, there is a surprising sense of hope and humor here and Waits is the perfect choice for the lone prospector.

Another highlight, and probably the longest story in the film is “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” In it, Zoe Kazan portrays Alice Longabaugh, a young woman who finds herself in an unfortunate situation after the death of her brother. It all revolves around her and a blossoming romance with a goodhearted cowboy named Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). The two actors are so good together that it is easily the most romantic story. However, romance doesn’t always take a turn for the better in the wild, wild west. As good as this is, it is made all the better thanks to both Kazan and Heck. The two actors are perfectly cast and they share a few wonderfully sweet moments together. This is not to say that there isn’t something dark and insidious happening, but frankly, it makes it all the more surprising.

the ballad of buster scruggs joel coen ethan coen netflix zoe kazan bill heck james franco liam neeson western anthology joblo.comThe last in the series is “The Mortal Remains,” which also brings a sort of creepy factor into this stylish western. This segment offers up an impressive cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek and Chelcie Ross. The final bow in this ballad didn’t quite live up to what came before for this viewer, yet it was still a good ride with a hint of horror for good measure. And considering the storyline, it made for a solid end to this exuberantly strange and hilariously macabre return to early days of America. While THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS may not be Joel and Ethan Coen’s finest work, it is still wildly creative and engaging. If you are a Coen Brothers fan – and I reckon that many of you are – you will not want to miss this twisted tale of cowboys, indians and more than a few unsavory folks looking for a gunfight.





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JimmyO is one of’s longest-tenured writers, with him reviewing movies and interviewing celebrities since 2007 as the site’s Los Angeles correspondent.