A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-story anthology set in a stylized version of the American West; it was written, produced, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Each story, with its own cast of characters, is distinctive in tone, plot, and setting. Topics range from a "singing cowboy" in a gun-happy town to a westward-bound wagon train, a bank robbery, a prospector on a quest for gold, and more. Heavy on violence (often with a wry twist), the movie's body count is high, and there's lots of blood. Characters are shot (often at point-blank range), stabbed, speared, hanged, and attacked by Native Americans "on the warpath," more as an ironic homage to old-fashioned Western movie clichés than as an example of racism. Occasional swearing includes "son of a bitch," "bastard," and "dammit." A prostitute is engaged for her services, but nothing graphic is shown. As a warning to an innocent young woman, a cowboy talks about the threat of rape. Saloons are busy, cowboys drink -- one gets very drunk. Cigarettes are smoked. Mature themes, offbeat humor, and the dark side of human nature writ large make this violent movie appropriate only for mature audiences.
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What's the story?
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, at a little over two hours, tells six stories, united only by their imaginative take on traditional tales from lore of the American West and on their offbeat tone. Each is in a different setting with its own complex, often unexpected characters. Luck -- both good and bad -- plays a significant role in a number of the tales. In the title story, Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a famous gunfighter who sings and shoots and smiles his way into the heart of a dusty town filled with outlaws and cutthroats. James Franco in "Near Algodones" is a bank robber who finds himself on the wrong end of a gun. "Meal Ticket" tells the story of an itinerant "Impresario" (Liam Neeson) taking his fantastical "show" to isolated outposts. Tom Waits, as "The Prospector," lights up the most picturesque vistas of the West with his enduring passion and patience as he pans for gold. Zoe Kazan is Alice, "The Gal Who Got Rattled," on a long wagon train heading to a new life in Oregon. And finally, "The Mortal Remains," with five outrageous passengers, takes place entirely in a stagecoach with an array of mouthy folks who have stridently different points of view.
Is it any good?
Character-rich, strikingly photographed, with occasional humor (often irreverent) and deft moments of poignancy, the uniquely talented Coen Brothers add another gem to their long list of treasures. They leave no Old West traditions unplumbed. Crusty old-timers, garrulous con artists, and hapless victims of violence and cruelty are dealt hands that audiences have seen before, but not like this. They don't skimp on details either. Art decoration, sets, costumes, makeup, music, and framing the stories with an "authentic" book feel just right. The movie looks and sounds beautiful. The performances, from the leads to those with one line, are wonderful.
Of course, in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, some of the stories work better than others, but it's hard to pick a favorite. Some folks may find the treatment of Native Americans a bit "retro," but in this movie the characterizations appear to point up and subtly mock the off-putting depictions seen in earlier films. In their long partnership, taking extraordinary risks (see A Serious Man and The Lady Killers), having resounding successes (Fargo and No Country for Old Men), and creating "one-off" cult favorites (The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Joel and Ethan Coen have made multitudes of fans. This film, for mature audiences, is a stellar addition to their body of work.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the violence in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The filmmakers display a wide range of tone in their depiction of violence. In which stories is the gunplay and action meant to be funny? In which is it meant to be exaggerated? In which does it feel most real?
Why was "Meal Ticket," with Liam Neeson and Harry Melling, in which absolutely no violence was shown, perhaps the most unsettling and disturbing of the stories?
What is the meaning of the word "irony" in literature and film? "Near Algodones," with James Franco, is the clearest example of irony. Which other stories had ironic twists (often sad) at the end?
What role did luck (bad or good) play in some of the stories? In "All Gold Canyon"? In "The Gal Who Got Rattled"?
- In theaters: November 9, 2018
- On DVD or streaming: November 16, 2018
- Cast: Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, James Franco
- Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Western
- Topics: Adventures, History, Misfits and Underdogs
- Run time: 133 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: some strong violence
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