“Things have a way of escalating out here in the West.”
So explains Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) near the beginning of the Coen brothers’ new feature, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. A dandified, singing gunfighter whom we first meet as he’s playing guitar on horseback—we’re treated to a cunning shot from inside the guitar, peering out through the sound hole at his strumming fingers—Buster refers to himself as the “San Saba Songbird.” Others, less generous, refer to him as the “West Texas Twit” or the “Runt of Rheardan Pass.” His WANTED poster, in what is presumably an inside joke on the Coens’ own reputation, is more succinct: “The Misanthrope.”
Buster is correct in saying that things escalate: both quickly, over the course of his own story, and more gradually, over the course of the six individual tales that make up the Coens’ Western anthology, which Netflix has released for a small theatrical run before expanding to more theaters and streaming on November 16.
Though it may provide the movie with its title, Buster’s ballad is short-lived. He engages in one bloody, slapstick shoot-out in a saloon, and then a second, a masterpiece of choreographed comic geometry. (“Your tactics gotta be downright Archimedean,” Buster explains after a particularly baroque bit of gunplay.) But then a younger quick-draw artist named “The Kid” arrives in town, as these types routinely do, and the yarn ends more or less the way it always does, only with more singing.
In a sense, the Coens have been building toward Buster Scruggs for much of their career: with the neo-Westerns Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men, the neo-Western satire Raising Arizona, their remake of the genre classic True Grit, and the cowboy characters of The Big Lebowski and Hail, Caesar!. This time around, the half-dozen tales the Coens wind up telling (of which Buster’s is the first) are separate narratives they conceived over the course of 25 years. Tying them together is the conceit that they are “chapters” of the same “book,” complete with the device—shopworn? ironic? both?—of showing pages flipped every time one story segues to the next. Together they present an impressively comprehensive six-part taxonomy of the mythical Old West: the gunslinger, the bank robber, the traveling showman, the prospector, the wagon train, the stagecoach.
The second chapter, which stars James Franco as a not particularly capable thief—his is a neck very much in search of a noose—is a bit less daffy than the first, though still firmly in the comic mode. But after this tale the film veers into darker terrain, with three stark and pitiless fables: Liam Neeson, almost unrecognizable and near-mute, plays a grizzled, town-to-town impresario whose “meal ticket” is a young orator who has neither arms nor legs; Tom Waits has perhaps the film role of his career as a solitary gold rusher panning and shoveling his way to the score of a lifetime; and Zoe Kazan stars as a young woman who encounters surprises both good and bad on a long journey along the Oregon Trail. It all closes with an odd but intriguing fillip, a mildly macabre vignette in which five very different passengers share a notably uncomfortable stagecoach ride. This last installment almost seems like the opening act of a much, much better version of The Hateful Eight.
As always, the Coens’ production is meticulous, featuring details both cinematic (the squeak of a windmill recalls Once Upon a Time in the West; a hat that blows away, leaving its owner vulnerable, conjures the brothers’ own Miller’s Crossing) and historical (the explanation that a wagon train requires professionals both in the front, the “pilot,” and in the rear, the “drag”). The cinematography, by Bruno Delbonnel, with whom the Coens also collaborated on Inside Llewyn Davis, is entrancing. So, too, is the score, by Carter Burwell, who seems always to save his best for the Coens.
The performances are excellent across the board, from the stars already mentioned to the character actors (Clancy Brown, Stephen Root, Saul Rubinek) who appear in smaller roles. And ever alert to new talent—from Frances McDormand in Blood Simple to Alden Ehrenreich in Hail, Caesar!—the Coens provide promising introductions to the American actor Bill Heck and the Irish stage star Jonjo O’Neill.
But though the stories are individually captivating and very much worth the price of admission—see the film on a big screen if you can—they fit together awkwardly. The shifts in tone and pace are extreme, and rather than alternate among moods, the Coens, well, escalate: two helpings of farce, followed by three of stark drama, with a dessert of black comedy that is gone from the plate just as one has begun to appreciate its flavor. Though this menu is clearly by design, the result is both a meal that feels less than the sum of its parts and individual courses that themselves feel somehow undercooked. I found myself simultaneously wanting both more and less.