The Ballad of Buster Sgruggs: A review and an observation on the nature of existance

I have always loved westerns, they are uniquely American inventions born of our culture and the world watches them with great curiosity. If you are in a hotel in London or even Paris and Madrid, and flipping through the channels in the middle of the night, you will see lots of old westerns playing because to them there is great optimism in old American westerns. Westerns specifically show values easily in a stripped away fashion of what American values truly are, what a capitalist society truly thinks about itself and others. Hollywood essentially built itself on the strength of the western but leftist radicals’ intent on destroying America have launched a not so secret crusade against all westerns essentially, most obvious in big Disney productions like The Lone Ranger and the Star Wars film Solo: A Star Wars Story. Even in the disguise of science fiction such as Solo was, modern critics and the entertainment press in general want nothing to do with them, and they make it known as they try to torpedo those films at the box office leaving a clear message to filmmakers to stay away from the genre or else. Those who do so dare usually end up turning the American western into a Shakespearian tragedy which is certainly the case of the new one from the Coen Brothers called The Ballad of Buster Sgruggs, just released to Netflix and the video game by Rockstar Games called Red Dead Redemption 2. However, in the case of both references, Red Dead and Buster Sgruggs the old traditions of the American western are there and represented strongly and in the age of the Trump presidency, are quite necessary.

It wasn’t planned this way because Rockstar Games has been making Red Dead Redemption 2 for the last eight years, and the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan have been writing The Ballad of Buster Sgruggs for the last 15 years so neither could have known what would happened in 2016 when Donald Trump would be elected president and the world would be shifting toward nationalism as opposed to a one world government. But with those events westerns such as these suddenly have much more appeal to the longing individualists struggling to make sense of our modern times. And let me tell you something dear reader, it is a real treat to get something as good as The Ballad of Buster Sgruggs delivered to the comfort of your own living room through Netflix as opposed to having to go to the theater to watch it. The film was released to limited theatrical presentations, but on a project like this very inventive western, it is a must watch for those with Netflix accounts.

However, I would not call The Ballad of Buster Sgruggs a traditional western such as Bonanza or Gunsmoke where the protagonists defeat the antagonists with great moral clarity by the end of the story set to uplifting music. Buster Sgruggs is a tragedy, but in all other aspects, it is a very epic achievement of art set against the canvas of America and is very much worth watching. The movie is divided up into six primary stories and is presented in a format much like the great film by Akira Kurosawa called Dreams. The six stories are very compelling but one in particular I felt a great affinity with, it was the story of an old gold digger panning for gold in some unlisted wilderness environment. I think that story said so much about the pros and cons of capitalism in a very simple setting that it was brilliant in its execution. That portion of the story was well worth watching all by itself.

I have a real love of old western towns and Buster Sgruggs had plenty of well-designed sets that were wonderfully built of old frontier towns. The reason I love those towns so much is that they say a lot about us as human beings, suddenly free from the aristocrats of politics and provided with great resources, what is it that humans desire to build. Modern cities have lots of added levels to them and the benefit of modern construction methods, but when you look at an old frontier town and consider the amount of human capital it took to build them, everything from downing the trees, to plaining the wood for construction to building every last thing by hand, to see a town build in a remote corner of the world for the purpose of a new economy freshly discovered in just a few years is quite a remarkable undertaking. And in a lot of ways The Ballad of Buster Sgruggs captured that dim hope that the human race placed in such projects without being overly preachy about it. Everything was wonderfully shot and was generally ambitious in the way that those old towns were constructed. The filmmakers seemed to have understood that yearning and applied the same effort to their craft to obvious effect.

Another particularly sad but very effective story was the segment involving Liam Neeson as he traveled the country with a quadriplegic orator. Not to give anything away, but it was quite a commentary on the human condition and why people do things that they do. The results were ultimately very depressing, but all too honest and I thought it was a wonderful display of high art. Way too sad, but honest and it really is a good format to tell a story like that in the context of a western where people for the first time in their lives were free to roam about on their own, without the protections of group affiliations or government reach.

Another such tragedy that I didn’t see the end coming was the segment about the Oregon Trail, wonderfully photographed in Nebraska with a real caravan of covered wagons. You can’t help but love the characters, they are very likable and you want to cheer them on to success. The love story that evolves is one that anybody would want to see flourish, but how it all ends was just sobering. Often human beings cut the rug out from under themselves all with good intentions, but we often write our own tragic ends in life before the story ever starts. And that was the case of that story, sad, tragic but worth living. It was a mesmerizing tail not so much of good and evil, but in stupidity and hope, blind faith, and the harsh realities of existence.

If you get a chance, I’d highly recommend The Ballad of Buster Sgruggs and to watch it with an open mind, without the pretense of previous westerns. I would not so much call this a tragedy set in the west because there are moments of great optimism in it. I for one had several favorite characters, my favorite probably being Buster Sgruggs himself and the banker who is tasked with fending off a bank robbery. I can really relate to that guy. But ultimately, I think my favorite character was the old man panning for gold. His shock and awe intertwined with endless hope and persistence is something that anybody could admire. And his story alone makes The Ballad of Buster Sgruggs worth watching. But lucky for us there is so much more to enjoy and it is a real achievement in these changing days of entertainment where something of that quality can be streamed at home rather than a theatrical experience which is yet another benchmark in our march into the future.

Rich Hoffman

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