Don’t balk at this brilliant ballad

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” captures the West six times over



Eccentric cowboy Buster Scruggs rides through the desert, singing a tune on horseback. Scruggs’ story is one of six in the anthology western film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a magnificent portrayal of the Old West created by the Coen Brothers.

Ian Fertig, A&E Editor

“You know the story. But people can’t get enough of them, like little children. Because well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose, and we all love hearing about ourselves, so long as the people in the stories are us, but not us.”

These are the words of a man in a stagecoach as he reflects on the nature of stories, encapsulating the purpose of the movie he’s in, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a sometimes funny, sometimes haunting, and always entertaining Western anthology film, available now on Netflix.

The Coen Brothers, the brilliant minds behind “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit,” return to the harsh and dangerous landscape of the Old West for six captivating and ill-fated stories of men and women on the frontier. Presented as stories in a book, each disconnected chapter in this enthralling saga is a different look at some aspect of Western life, from wagon trains to bank robberies. Each story shares nothing with the others besides superb quality and a distressing or disheartening ending.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” features a wealth of magnificent acting performances, including that of Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson, James Franco, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, and Tim Blake Nelson, just to name a few. To populate the six different worlds of the movie, it’s no surprise that a multitude of actresses and actors were required. What was surprising was that each man and woman excelled at their given role, with no exceptions.

Watching this movie is like sitting in a candlelit room with a wise mentor of some kind reading the stories to you. You know there are lessons to learn, but you are captured with childlike wonder by the events of the stories, the characters in them, and the magnificent backdrop of the Wild West landscape.”

— A&E Editor Ian Fertig

The presentation of the shorts in the pages of a book may be a trope audiences have seen before, but the style and tone of the film are set by this method of storytelling. Between each story, the same book is shown, and the new story is a new chapter. This strategy emphasizes that each story is a distinct work, as important as all the others. Watching this movie is like sitting in a candlelit room with a wise mentor of some kind reading the stories to you. You know there are lessons to learn, but you are captured with childlike wonder by the events of the stories, the characters in them, and the magnificent backdrop of the Wild West landscape.

The six stories of the movie are as follows:

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The opening short to the movie is a strange and ridiculous trip, which is as well-crafted as the others but separated from them by its absurd tone. Tim Blake Nelson stars as Buster Scruggs, an eccentric sharpshooter with a tendency to sing and break the fourth wall. Scruggs’ story is the only one that’s both fantastical and ridiculous, but it still ends with a somewhat-solemn reflection on the fate of the West’s proud gunslingers.

Near Algodones

Following Buster’s crazy Ballad is a quick tale of one man’s ill-fated attempt to rob a bank. The quick twists and turns in the plot of this short story provide a segment that’s equal parts entertaining and surprising. James Franco’s performance and the fate of his unlucky character were both excellent, resulting in a chapter that’s as significant as Buster’s, but nowhere near as quirky.

Meal Ticket

Undeniably the harshest tale of the six, “Meal Ticket” tells the story of a traveling entertainer with no arms or legs and his gruff caretaker. The story is mostly devoid of dialogue, except for the poetry performances from the limbless character. The great and terrible periods of silence, as the two men travel from town to town, build an invasive atmosphere of tension that rises continuously through the story, all the way to its dark end.

All Gold Canyon

At the surface level, this story is an old man’s quest for riches as he searches for gold in a magnificent valley. Beneath that, “All Gold Canyon” is haunting, a tale of greed and its effects on humanity and nature. As the old man digs for the gold pocket, which he refers to as “Mr. Pocket,” his good-hearted nature is overshadowed by his own desire to strike it rich. When the unexpectedly intense climax to this tale arrives, prepare to be amazed by the lengths men will go for nothing more or less than money.

The Gal Who Got Rattled

The longest story of the film is a visually spectacular wagon train journey along the Oregon Trail. The main characters consist of a shy and uncertain woman, her foolhardy brother, their dog, and the two guides of the train: one an old and hardened man, the other a young gentleman. As a series of tragic and problematic events plague the characters, they must grapple with life and death, right and wrong, and love and loneliness as they make their way West. The final moments of this magnificent story capture the truly uncertain and dangerous nature of the frontier as only the Coen brothers can.

The Mortal Remains

The final chapter plays out like a masterfully-written short story, relying on nothing more than a conversation between five passengers on a stagecoach to create the perfect capstone to the film. A graceless trapper, a gambling Frenchman, and a high-society woman ride with two mysterious “bounty hunters” to Fort Morgan, and the entire story chronicles their interactions as night falls around them. As the ride wears on, the passengers begin to understand that “Fort Morgan” is more than a place on Earth, and this definitive ride has far more significance than they think. The close of day causes the lighting (and as a result, the tone) of this chapter to slowly transition from a world of golden light to a dark landscape of blues and blacks. The end of the passenger’s journey brings the end of the audience’s journey through the movie, and in doing so provides a conclusion that leaves the viewer feeling a sense of closure.

Watch “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” on Netflix today, and experience a journey into the West like no other.