- Review by Kaya Savas - December 12, 2018
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs continues the amazing collaboration between the Coen brothers and composer Carter Burwell. This anthology film is compiled of six stories that take place in the old American western frontier, and provided Burwell with a wholly unique challenge as a composer. The score not only had to be the glue that held the experience together, but also craft six vastly different narratives separate from one another. The end result is as pure a Coen/Burwell experience you could have hoped for.
The film opens with a shot of a book titled “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs: And Other Tales of the American Frontier”. As the credits roll, a hand comes down to open the book, it opens the cover. The first page inside the book, is a dedication. The dedication reads, “To Gaylord Gilpin. Who shared with us these stories, and many more alike, one night in camp above the Roaring Fork, ’til approach of morn stained the sky and our esteem for him stained our trousers, this book is dedicated.” I mean, it doesn’t get more Coen brothers than that. Burwell’s somber tunes grace the opening titles, setting the stage for what's to come.
Each of the vignettes differ in tone and style in some fashion. But like the dedication reads, it's all meant to feel like we’re being told these stories huddled around a campfire. Burwell approaches each score with a slightly different palette, but they are all very much Burwell’s style. The first short, which is "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs" features three diegetic songs, all performed within the story. The album itself is not presented in chronological order, so if you’re coming into this before watching the film then you may be confused. Each story features an untimely and unfortunate death, and the music plays with that. There’s a somber tone to each vignette, but Burwell tends to find all the intricate details that make each different from the one that came before. You’ll notice the music echoing some more Morricone sensibilities in some places, and in other places we have more Americana pumped into it. Each vignette is scored as its own individual piece, but we can tell its the same storyteller telling us each story.
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is a wonderful ode to old-fashioned storytelling. The Coen brothers are seemingly obsessed with the western genre, in fact I would say most of their filmography are westerns. Films like Fargo, O’ Brother Where Art Thou, No Country For Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing, Blood Simple and pretty much any of their films echo some sort of western sensibilities. Films like The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs and True Grit are direct entries in the western genre, while others retain the genre’s signature archetypes. Here, they get to explore 6 different tales of the old west, and it’s a wonderful exploration into deeply interesting and flawed characters. Carter Burwell’s signature sounds elevate this into another brilliant Coen brothers experience.