Joel and Ethan Coen come to Netflix with their newest Western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology of six loosely-tied post-Civil War tales that punctuate the filmmakers’ trademark nihilism, dark humor and wit and stakes a strong claim to sit among the brother duo’s very best work.
The six stories of the Old West are told in a classic style of flipping through a storybook, revealing a title and corresponding image for each short story before they begin. Each one is vastly different in tone and execution, but they all share an ebb and flow, a tapestry of color and a clear thematic thread throughout.
The Coens have always been fascinated by the inevitably of death, the unknowability of the universe and the impossible task of trying to control fate. For the sake of oversimplifying, you could say The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a mix of the brothers’ A Serious Man and No Country for Old Men. There are splashes of ultra-violence and sparks of pitch-black comedy, and this just might be the filmmakers at their most nihilistic.
Part of me, once the credits rolled, wanted more stories. Equal parts painful and free-wheeling, I wanted to continue living in this version of the West the Coens had concocted. And the thought is tempting, with the movie released on Netflix, to hope they had done a series of these stories instead and been able to do multiple seasons. But that’s just me wanting more of a good thing. The way these specific six stories work together is masterful, and there should, truly, be no more and no less than what is given.
The first thrusts you headfirst into this world with the introduction of the titular Buster Scruggs; the tale is gleefully absurd and bloody. The second tale follows suit, continuing in the realm of the absurdist. And then comes the third, which splashes a pail of ice cold water on your face, slapping you hard with a tough reality. The fourth tale is a bittersweet reverie while the fifth punches you square in the gut. And the sixth is a haunting coda. Each of them build on each other in sly, unexpectedly moving ways until the cumulative impact wallops you.
The first story is “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” as we follow the titular character riding a horse through a canyon singing a jovial tune. He’s a wanted man, but we can’t figure why — he seems unassuming and nonthreatening. And then it takes a turn, showing his true colors as he wreaks havoc through a saloon and reveals that he is, in fact, a total psychopath.
The violence is shocking but never gratuitous, and this is the Coens setting the tone for everything else to come. Tim Blake Nelson’s Buster Scruggs is a maniacally grinning Anton Chigurh wielding a revolver. The next segment, “Near Algodones” follows a bank robber played by James Franco as he keeps dodging death until his luck runs out. Also boasting eruptions of violence, this second entry eases us into dark, cosmic territory.
Then comes the wintry chill of “Meal Ticket” following a Western P.T. Barnum-type played by Liam Neeson traveling with a talented, limbless poet (Harry Melling) who he cares for unconditionally, until a better money-making opportunity presents itself. The disposability of life is palpable and crushing.
Tom Waits continues having a great year, after his supporting turn in The Old Man and the Gun, with his extensive role in the fourth segment, “All Gold Canyon.” He plays a prospector in the heart of the Gold Rush as he excavates the land for his next bounty. This tale is among the most visually rapturous. But that’s without mentioning just how gorgeous the entire movie is, the way each story is photographed specifically to fit its tone.
From vibrant landscapes to nearly monochromatic blue hues to close out the final entry, a contemplation on death, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis) is likely on track to his sixth Oscar nomination, and rightfully so.
The fifth tale, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” is the most fleshed-out of the short stories. Zoe Kazan plays Alice Longabaugh, a young woman part of a caravan on her their way to Oregon who loses her brother along the way. He had contracted her to settle and marry once landed in Oregon, but after her brother’s untimely death, she meets the handsome and charming Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), who makes a proposal of his own.
The way the story weaves from elegiac to romantic to ultimately devastating is a wonder and emblematic of the movie as a whole. The resolution stings of painful cosmic irony that Coens relish in best.
The coda, “The Mortal Remains,” then reigns things back in as the most contained entry of them all. It takes place almost entirely in a stagecoach with a cast of characters, among them two bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill) and Tyne Daly as a woman who realizes she might’ve been lying to herself for many years about her own life.
The weight of life’s mistakes is heavy, especially when one of the characters pokes their head out the carriage to see the carriage-leader could easily be mistaken for the grim reaper. The group may as well be headed to their Final Destination. It’s a chilling conclusion to one of the Coen Brothers’ greatest achievements, and don’t let it sitting on Netflix fool you into thinking this is a minor effort; think of it as an opportunity to revisit this brilliant movie again and again.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now streaming on Netflix.