‘Scruggs’ gives viewers plenty to chew on while along for ride

December 7, 2018

At the start of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the new blender-Western from the Coen Brothers, there are echoes of the overlooked (and underappreciated) 1985 Western comedy “Rustler’s Rhapsody.” In it, a young Tom Berenger plays Rex O’Herlihan,  a singing cowboy who trots into a cliche-ridden town of cinematic yesteryear and serves justice between a few jaunty Roy Rogers-inspired musical numbers.

It was a good-natured spoof of a forgotten genre that lived in a world all its own, but played perfectly within its self-defined limits.

In “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the new Coen Brothers’ film that premiered exclusively on Netflix last week, we first meet the titular character (played by Tim Blake Nelson) who seems to have walked off the same set as O’Herlihan -- decked out in a bleached white getup and belting out a ditty as he trots into town on his trusty steed.

But it does not take long to realize we are in the hands of the Coen Brothers, the Oscar winners who gave us such genre-skewing classics as “No Country for Old Men,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and “The Big Lebowski,” and they are not directors who like to get comfy with a specific cinematic classification. And while Scruggs may have his name in the title, the film follows an episodic format (six of them, actually), each tonally miles apart from one another despite the fact that they are all set in the Wild West.

Similar to the Wes Anderson technique of leafing through a book to encapsulate his films, each new story within is introduced with a page turn, and while not every episode is worthy of feature format, it is never not striking, either visually or through its profound storytelling.

Some tales are stark and unrelenting as an Arizona desert, such as the third tale starring Liam Neeson as a traveling impresario whose roadshow consists of an armless, legless thespian (played by Harry Melling), and who both face diminishing crowds as the cold winter approaches. It’s as austere and bleak as it sounds, but thankfully it’s early on, and more humane narratives follow: Tom Waits takes the role of a giddy old prospector mining for gold, Zoe Kazan is a frightened woman on an Oregon wagon train, and Tyne Daly and Brendan Gleeson head a packed stagecoach headed to a mysterious locale.

With the Coens, it’s all about the journey and not the destination, and between the panoramic vistas and the always engaging wordplay from its various leads, “Scruggs” gives us plenty to chew on while we are along for the ride.

It’s long (clocking in at little over two hours) and meandering at times, but there’s an ornery strangeness that keeps it compelling throughout, despite any sort of connective tissue between the various tales.

If there is any commonality between the stories, it’s the necessity for some form of human connectedness when Mother Nature is at her most harsh. And they are told as though the Coens have stoked up a nice open-air fire and have invited us all for a sit-down of their own unique brand of Prairie Tales.

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society. Email him at

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