Well don’t let my white duds and pleasant demeanor fool ya.
You know the whole enterprise will be a bit cheeky just by directors’ Joel and Ethan Coen‘s statement of intent. While explaining that their love for anthology movies stems from the format’s ability to unite multiple directors with a common theme, they admit their hopes of doing the same with a sextet of Western tales written and adapted over the years. Instead of lamenting the fact they couldn’t make it happen before deciding to direct everything themselves, the duo deliver their punch line: “It was our great fortune that they both agreed to participate.” No one should be surprised considering their use of dryly black humor in the past, but it’s still a delight to see them having such fun. And with Netflix footing the bill, why not?
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was thus born on the back of this idea with Annapurna to produce a series of short-form work. Rather than let it be episodic in nature, however, the Coens felt one cohesive film in the order presented was the way to go. Four passages are original pieces (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, “Near Algodones”, “Meal Ticket”, and “The Mortal Remains”) with two born from the minds of Jack London (“All Gold Canyon”) and Stewart Edward White (“The Gal Who Got Rattled”). One’s a musical, another a straight comedy, the third a dour affair of deep melancholic betrayal, and the others a healthy mix of adventure, action, and suspense. As a whole the project proves a success with something to like in each.
Because there’s also something to be desired in each alone, though, the feature-length construction definitely helps matters. In all honesty it’s their original work that’s lacking and perhaps that’s to be expected. Maybe the Coens’ quartet were all ideas that never quite panned out, so they polished each up just enough to provide the effect they sought to conjure before fading to black without any need to give us more. So we can smile at Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) breaking the fourth wall to build up his already astronomical-sized ego without feeling underwhelmed by his anti-climactic demise. We can bask in the glory that is Stephen Root‘s loquacious and wild-eyed bank teller thwarting James Franco‘s unnamed cowboy’s robbery and forget how what follows pales in comparison.
This is the benefit of not having to rely solely on one character’s trajectory. Rather than pad out the runtime of an old impresario (Liam Neeson) and the talent (Harry Melling) whose diminishing returns in profits no longer justify the intensive labor of keeping him happy and healthy, the Coens can punctuate their morality tale with the most somber of notes before moving on to the next chapter’s equally brief yet potent escapade. And if each was just as disposable in that lack of intrigue warranting post-game attention, I could see myself grading the entirety higher. But “All Gold Canyon” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled” are better than that, dwarfing the others with powerful three-act structures that make us sit and process what occurred.
I have to believe this is why the two funniest bits are at the front with those two serious works left towards the end. The Coens purposefully have Buster Scruggs wake us up to the potential of what they’re striving to accomplish as absurdity and violence become a match made in Heaven. With a couple high concept kills and Nelson’s smile, we settle in for similar antics that earn their pitch-black conclusions. Following it up with Root and Franco is only natural, the steady transition from laugh-out-loud to wittily perverse a perfect segue towards “The Meal Ticket’s” more dreary aesthetic. That second half of “Near Algodones” is by far the weakest portion here, so letting it fade before the effective yet contrived machinations of Neeson’s passage is smart.
And where you can see “The Meal Ticket’s” strings, “All Gold Canyon” arrives to knock you off your feet. It’s a wonderful one-man show with Tom Waits‘ meticulous and slightly insane prospector carrying us from one dirt-hole to the next in search of Mr. Gold Pocket. There’s a really worthwhile subversion of fairy tale notions too with all the woodland creatures running away upon hearing his voice, knowing he’s arrived to put a gash in nature. He’s the villain and yet also inevitably the victim—a lesser of two evils so to speak who we can respect and champion regardless of his greedy sense of entitlement. To me it’s the bona fide stunner that should be remembered above all else with “The Gal Who Got Rattled” close behind.
The latter is the most complete portion and one that probably could have been expanded to feature length. I’m glad it wasn’t, though, since its brevity here really cements its characters’ struggle on the Oregon Trail. A lot is happening with expectations constantly being flipped on their head both in-script and out. For much of its runtime I assumed there would be a reveal for Zoe Kazan‘s Alice Longabaugh wherein her innocence would be exposed as a front to cajole Mr. Knapp (Bill Heck) into helping her, but lo and behold things go in a much different direction. And the way they and Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) each find themselves to be the star at one time or another serves as a testament to the story’s impeccable composition.
That leaves “The Mortal Remains” to bring things to a close. It’s an effective dialogue-heavy scene that provides the film a hellish end-cap to contrast the first chapter’s angelic wings. The cast is its best attribute with Chelcie Ross‘ Trapper, Tyne Daly‘s Lady, and Saul Rubinek‘s Frenchman each playing into their stereotypes to prove more and more self-importantly vile while the two men across from them jovially detract from their monstrous occupation. Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson each get a song for more mirroring, but theirs are distraction from the evil of man and our ability to accept horrors so long as we can still sleep at night. It’s perhaps the silliest of the bunch simply because its so self-serious, sending us away with a its winking smirk.
 Tim Blake Nelson as “Buster Scruggs” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.
 Zoe Kazan as “Alice Longabaugh” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.
 Jonjo O’Neill as “The Englishman” and Brendan Gleeson as “The Irishman” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.