"The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" Excerpt
Josh: This is indeed a Coen brothers friendly show, Adam. The work of Joel and Ethan Coen tends to dominate our Filmspotting Madness tournaments each year, where listeners vote in an NCAA-style contest pitting movies and their makers against each other. "Fargo," won our Best of the 1990s edition. The Coen brothers themselves won our Best Directors tournament. When it comes to the two of us though it seems as if we equally appreciate the Coens, but maybe from different vantage points. Case in point, in the last 10 years we've each named a Coen brothers film as our favorite in a given year. But for you that was 2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis." For me it was 2016's "Hail, Caesar!" If you look at our separate lists on Letterboxd, ranking their films – or could decipher our opening shoot out – our top fives share only two titles in common, "Fargo," and "No Country for Old Men."
All of this brings us to "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," the Coen's anthology Western, comprised of six separate tales set on the American frontier. I was quite intrigued when I saw where we each ranked "Buster Scruggs" on those Letterboxd lists. Before I get to that though, a bit more background on "Buster." The opening tale, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," features Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, a singing gunslinger who wears snappy white chaps and tends to shoot up every saloon he enters. He's sort of like a smiley Anton Chigurh. The next tale, "Near Algodones," stars James Franco as a dimwitted bank robber and Stephen Root as a resourceful teller. This is where you yell, "Pan shot," Adam.
Adam: Pan shot!
Josh: Nice. "Meal Ticket," follows, the bleakest installment, featuring Liam Neeson as a travelling showman and Harry Melling as his act, an armless, legless man reciting lofty oratory poetry, famous speeches, [and] Bible passages to frigid frontier crowds. That puts us at the halfway point where we get the cheerier, "All Gold Canyon," with Tom Waits as a persistent prospector, and "The Gal Who Got Rattled," a tentative, touching romance between a pioneer woman named Alice, played by Zoe Kazan, and a trail guide named Billy, played by Bill Heck, who showcases some real leading man chops. Did you notice how Kazan pronounces Oregon, Adam?
Adam: I did actually. [Laughs]
Josh: I expect the Coens to get many, many emails.
Adam: And then I noticed how Bill Heck said it correctly.
Josh: [Laughs] Things do come to a spooky conclusion with "The Mortal Remains," featuring a midnight stagecoach. Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross, Jonjo O'Neill, and Brendan Gleeson are the passengers who may or may not be galloping to their final resting place. So what do we make of "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in its entirety, Adam? Let's start with the unlikely fact that you and I both ranked it in the same spot on Letterboxd amongst the Coen brothers filmography, and it's even lower than where listener Ben had it at 11. We've both got it at a lowly number 15, so I'm curious to hear is there a particular reason "Buster Scruggs," fell that far down for you. Or do you essentially think it's pretty great, and that list is mostly a testament – as Ben says – to how damn good the Coens are?
Adam: I hate to spoil your setup. You had some nice symmetry going there, but within about 24 hours of putting it in the 15 spot–
Josh: Oh my gosh you re-ranked them?
Adam: –on letterboxd, I reranked it.
Josh: You're ridiculous.
Adam: I reranked it and I definitely–
Josh: You're ridiculous!
Adam: –knew I had to rerank it after I watched "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," for a second time. I actually right now, Josh, have it at number 12.
Adam: And it is absolutely a testament to how good the Coen brothers filmography is. I think "Buster Scruggs," is pretty great, and we will not devolve into breaking down those rankings. I probably have, if I wanted to get really specific, five different tiers of Coen brothers movies, and that starts with six movies that are just flat out masterpieces – six movies that [...] on any given day I could take from any slot and move into the number one slot. But if I wanted to be a little more general about it, I could simply say that there are two tiers of Coen brothers movies of the 17 I've seen. There's one I haven't seen, and that is, "The Ladykillers." There are 15 that I think fall on some scale from really, really good to, as I said, masterpiece, and then there's two – just two at the bottom that I don't fully appreciate. Those are "Intolerable Cruelty" – I know there are some defenders out there of that film, and there are a lot more defenders out there of "Burn After Reading," which I'll admit I probably got wrong and just need to see again. I think the two that we really are actually split on the most is "The Man Who Wasn't There" – you have that ranked a lot higher – and also "True Grit". I think both are very good films, but those I know are right up there in that, what, top eight or nine for you, if not higher?
Josh: Yeah, I like both of those, and also I really like "Intolerable Cruelty." I would say the one that I'm lower on than you is "A Serious Man."
Josh: That's basically how things shake out, so we do have distinct differences when it comes to the Coens.
Adam: And we might have a distinct difference when it comes to our reads on this film, "Buster Scruggs." I think it is an unabashedly bleak yet oddly hopeful and entertaining meditation on the Coens perennial occupations the folly of human nature and death. I only know how you feel Josh based on your little Letterboxd blurb, but based on some of your phrasing there, I get the sense that you have a little bit of a different read on this.