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Movie review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Hot on the heels of Red Dead Redemption 2, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was released to Netflix Nov. 9, 2018, and was clearly ready to cash-in on the resurging popularity of the western genre.

Structurally though, it is something of an oddity. In the world of literature, there is such a thing as the fractured novel, and that is precisely what The Ballad of Buster Scruggs would be, if it weren’t a film. The early trailers promised an all-star cast and all viewers could ever want from a cowboy movie — shoot-outs, hangings, wagon trains, bank robberies — but there was no hint that the film’s six stories would be completely independent of one another, rather than coming together as one cohesive narrative. It works though, and the 2 hours and 13 minutes that it takes to get through the film feel fuller, somehow.

The stories are beautifully shot, often outrageous (as one would expect from a Coen brothers film), and strike a fine balance between humour and appalling sadness. There is action, romance, betrayal, and one of the six stories is an especially poignant adaptation of Jack London’s “All Gold Canyon”.

As with almost every western, however, Buster Scruggs hits a sour note with regard to its representation of Indigenous peoples. Rather than taking the opportunity to include an equally nuanced story or two that featured First Nations as protagonists, the few stories that do include Indigenous peoples includes them only as violent aggressors to the white settler.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed almost everything about Buster Scruggs, this retention of the western genre’s demeaning stereotypes takes away some of the film’s fun for me. Just because the movie is set in the dusty past doesn’t mean we can’t have moved forward by now.

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