Coen brothers’ ‘disturbing’ anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs draws decent reviews at Venice Film Fest

After landing recent Westerns like No Country for Old Men and True Grit square in the good graces of Academy voters, the Coen brothers again traverse the American frontier with their latest film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which registered a mostly positive response Friday from movie critics at the Venice International Film Festival.

“The Coens have given us a hilarious, beautifully made, very enjoyable and rather disturbing anthology of stories from the old west…. vignettes that switch with stunning force from picturesque sentimentality to grisly violence,” The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw writes of the film following its world premiere at the Italian festival.

Though its structure might suggest otherwise and contrary to early reports, Buster Scruggs — Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest in a long line of critically adored films including Fargo and The Big Lebowski — never existed as an anthology television series, though it does take on an episodic structure. Divided into six segments, the sprawling dramedy stars a robust ensemble featuring Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Zoe Kazan, David Krumholtz, Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, and singer Tom Waits in a series of narratives about traveling performers, bank robbers, gold miners, and ladies in love. And critics were generally pleased with the collection as a whole.

“This is a handsomely made picture, with a richly plausible musical score by Carter Burwell; it is an old-school western in many ways and if there is something comic or self-satirizing about it, this doesn’t mean it is pure pastiche. There is a commitment to the genre, although the sheer eerie starkness of what is shown has an ironizing effect: tiny individual figures making their infinitesimal way through gigantic or iconic landscapes, tiny bars or banks marooned in the middle of the prairie, looming up like mirages. The settlers are always in danger from Native Americans, who are certainly represented as an alien presence — they don’t get a tale — but the white men and women are themselves mostly venal, pompous, greedy and violent,” Bradshaw continues.

The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin calls the movie “half-fish, half-fowl and altogether inspired,” as well as a “dazzling mosey through the creeks and canyons of the Coenesque, whose scattershot format and by turns bizarre and macabre sense of humor belies a formal ingenuity and surgical control of tone that keeps the viewer perpetually off-guard.” Writing for Time, Stephanie Zacharek notes the film includes “dashes of the Coens’ trademark arch humor,” though it takes on an increasingly “melancholy” tone as the project progresses into a critique of America’s grim foundation built upon stolen land.

Less enthusiastic in his review is The Wrap‘s Alonso Duralde, who takes issue with the uneven tone of the individual stories, writing “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will be, at best, a charming footnote in the Coens’ career, a project they enjoyed doing, and possibly even more enjoyed turning into a film so they can keep their résumé free of episodic television. As Netflix binges go, it’s a pretty good one, but be ready to love some episodes more than others.” Similarly, Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman calls the collection “a Coen trifle — or, rather, six of them — that adds up to a trifle more.”

In the end, the film is “part sincere and part smarmy, part amusing and part windy nonsense,” according to The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy, who goes on to say it “plays like an old Western-themed vaudeville show featuring six unrelated sketches of drastically differing quality. In other words, this little Western anthology is minor Coen Brothers, worth checking out on Netflix, which backed it, but of very limited potential theatrically.”

Screening at Venice can be the crucial first piece of any Oscar-bound film’s awards season puzzle (Venice has hosted world premieres for best picture winners and nominees like The Hurt LockerGravityBirdmanArrival, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and eight others since 2007), Netflix’s scripted features have yet to prove consistent might on the circuit at large, and Buster Scruggs has the makings of a real contender. Last year’s Mudbound became the distributor’s first fiction feature to register above-the-line nominations, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma appears to be hitting every stop on the 2018 festival trail in the hopes of securing Netflix its first best picture nomination as well.

Still, thanks to shifting attitudes regarding Netflix’s streaming-versus-theatrical release model (coupled with generally positive reactions out of Venice and the fact that the last four Coen pictures have each received at least one Oscar nod each), Buster Scruggs might soon sing the tune of awards glory if the streaming giant plays its cards right.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sounds off on Netflix (and in limited theatrical release) beginning Nov. 16. Read on for more reviews of the film from the 2018 Venice Film Festival.

Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)


“This is a handsomely made picture, with a richly plausible musical score by Carter Burwell; it is an old-school western in many ways and if there is something comic or self-satirizing about it, this doesn’t mean it is pure pastiche. There is a commitment to the genre, although the sheer eerie starkness of what is shown has an ironizing effect: tiny individual figures making their infinitesimal way through gigantic or iconic landscapes, tiny bars or banks marooned in the middle of the prairie, looming up like mirages. The settlers are always in danger from Native Americans, who are certainly represented as an alien presence — they don’t get a tale — but the white men and women are themselves mostly venal, pompous, greedy and violent.”

Stephanie Zacharek (Time)


“Some days a cheerful outlook just won’t do. For those days, there’s Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a book of cowboy tales written in movie language and playing in competition here at the Venice Film Festival. This little anthology, produced by Netflix, starts out at a jaunty canter and becomes progressively more grim, ending with a stagecoach headed, quite literally, for death’s door. Though there are dashes of the Coens’ trademark arch humor, most of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t what you’d call a laugh riot. There’s also something genuinely mournful about it; it leaves you feeling a little exposed, as if you’d been dropped, alone, into the wide-open prairie and weren’t sure you wanted to be there. It’s effective in a somber way, and as shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, it’s dazzling to look at, a reinvention of classic literature of the old west with a storybook feel.”

Alonso Duralde (The Wrap)


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will be, at best, a charming footnote in the Coens’ career, a project they enjoyed doing, and possibly even more enjoyed turning into a film so they can keep their résumé free of episodic television. As Netflix binges go, it’s a pretty good one, but be ready to love some episodes more than others.”

Robbie Collin (The Telegraph)


“The casting is so spot-on, the accuracy has a kind of comic punch — and never more so than in The Mortal Remains, in which six mismatched traveling companions rub one another up the wrong way as their carriage bears them off to…well, again, let’s just allow the film to play its hand. Tyne Daly plays an eyebrow-arching scold straight out of a Laurel & Hardy two-reeler, Chelcie Ross a bloviating fur trapper, Saul Rubinek a rumbling French windbag, Jonjo O’Neill a Mephistophelian spiv, Brendan Gleeson his softly singing business associate. Passenger number six? He’s a corpse, and is strapped to the roof. They’re a wildly mismatched bunch, and bounce off one another in untidy, hectic ways. But placed alongside each other, they just click, like cylinders on a combination lock, and fate pulls another twist from its suitcase. They’re the entire film in miniature, of course.”

Owen Gleiberman (Variety)


“Yet The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in its gnarly and ambling way, does justify its existence as a movie. It’s full of majestic wilderness imagery that pops on screen (Monument Valley has rarely looked this otherworldly in its grandeur, and there are green mountain vistas so pristine you want to go back in time and live there). More than that, the episodes are linked by a scabrous obsession with death that, in the end, adds up to something. Not something major, but a theme with a pinch of resonance…. Will there be an audience for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs? I predict: not enough of one. But for those who go, it’s a Coen trifle — or, rather, six of them — that adds up to a trifle more.”

Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter)


“Part sincere and part smarmy, part amusing and part windy nonsense, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs plays like an old Western-themed vaudeville show featuring six unrelated sketches of drastically differing quality. In other words, this little Western anthology is minor Coen Brothers, worth checking out on Netflix, which backed it, but of very limited potential theatrically.”

Eric Kohn (IndieWire)


“As the unseen reader finishes the book, Buster Scruggs leaves much to be desired, and little to justify its heft. Regardless of whether it was actually envisioned as a miniseries, it may have worked better in that context; as it stands, the sprawling collection provides a kind of cinematic liner notes to the Coens’ homegrown aesthetic. Their unique style has been so deeply ingrained in popular culture that it’s often taken for granted (or, with F/X’s Fargo series, transformed into pastiche). Buster Scruggs is a singular illustration of what makes the Coen formula so appealing, and a reminder of so many better examples.”

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