Grade-A ‘Scruggs’

(Above: Tim Blake Nelson in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’)

Netflix has become a potential first-stop for premieres of Grade-A theatrical releases. Mudbound, a 2018 Oscar nominee, was a prime (not Prime) example.

Now the brilliant directing and writing team of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen has released The Ballad of Buster Scruggs on Netflix while it’s still playing in theaters. Well, shucks – that’s worth stayin’ home fer.

Scruggs contains six unrelated stories situated in the mythical old west.

The Coens have created some wonderful – although often dark – characters inhabited by Tim Blake Nelson (playing the first story’s title character), Clancy Brown, Danny McCarthy, Stephen Root and Tom Waite. They indulge themselves in some delightfully Mark Twainish dialogue.

An evocative score by the Coen Brothers’ long-time collaborator, composer Carter Burwell, uses some well-known tunes of the west like “Cool Water” and “Mother McCree.” Panoramic cinematography shows off New Mexico’s pristine plains.

Scruggs isn’t for everyone. Some may be put off by the film’s structure. In fact, the title character is a device whose story lasts for just the film’s first 12 minutes.

But a fun story it is. Scruggs’ segment is a hilarious, if violent, mini-musical satire in the spirit of the Coen’s homoerotic, “No Dames” production number from Hail, Caesar! (2016).

Tim Blake Nelson’s Buster Scruggs is a deadly gunfighter, but a morally grounded one. He’s also a philosopher and minstrel, cheerfully singing about the necessity of adding notches to his gun. The role allows Blake to showcase the same smooth country baritone he revealed to audiences in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). And lest viewers aren’t following closely, Scruggs then transitions from Wild Wild West troubadour into the film’s narrator.

The second story, “Near Algodones,” veers into the surrealistic. The segment, starring James Franco, is infused with the Coens’ trademark dark and quirky cliché-busting. For example, Franco’s character, simply identified as “Cowboy” in the credits, comically escapes from the hangman’s knot. In defiance of conventional expectations, this doesn’t turn into a running gag. Still, Franco may have the funniest line in the film. Just watch the trailer below:

The film’s most bizarre and disturbing story is “Meal Ticket.” Liam Neeson, inaudible in an almost dialogue-free role as the “Impresario,” maintains a La Strada type theater company that depends on just one performer: a freak.

As the oratorically compelling “Artist,” Harry Melling is an armless and legless stump of a young man. The Impresario feeds, dresses, applies theatrical makeup and positions him behind the traveling makeshift curtain for an awaiting audience. Despite the Artist’s compelling eloquence with Shakespeare and the Gettysburg Address, his popularity declines.

The Impresario then discovers an opportunity to purchase a crowd-pleasing chicken. The chicken, with extremities intact, solves simple math problems with great theatricality – to the delight of all and the misfortune of the Artist.

Intrigued? You can watch the entire Ballad of Buster Scruggs menagerie at Netflix.

Interested in the other Coen Brothers movies discussed in this article?

Hail, Caesar! is available to rent starting at $3.99 from Amazon and other providers.

O Brother, Where Are Thou? starts at $2.99 from Vudu and other sources.


About Charlie Greenberg

Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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