“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.