“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” could be a movie. If that seems an odd thing to say at the top of a review for the Coen Brothers’ newest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, that is because the “Buster Scruggs” of Buster Scruggs is only a fraction of the overall film. Or to be more precise, it is the first (and best) short film in an anthology of six Western yarns written and directed with real affection by Joel and Ethan Coen. And while among the other five shorts in the piece there are also gems (as well as a few pieces of fool’s gold), the picture never quite overcomes how strong the first short was.
Opening on a vast wide shot in John Ford’s cinematic backyard, Monument Valley, the camera tracks Tim Blake Nelson in white hat, white shirt, and even white sequins as he rides his white horse through the canyon with a guitar in his hand and a song in his heart. It’s obviously an image steeped in movie history, for Nelson is the spitting image of Gene Autry, the singing cowboy. Echoing a more “innocent” style of Oater tall tales, Buster Scruggs’ ride is still told through the mischievous Coen prism. Which is to say Nelson might be a crooning white hat, but no one else is. Surrounded by cutthroats and bandits who’d kill the man simply for thinking sequins are fashionable, ol’ Buster keeps cutting his ditties short long enough to gun his foes down in an explosion of red gushing violence.
It’s a gag, but it’s a hell of one that could easily have been built out with a few more characters into something of the same cloth as the Coens’ first collaboration with Nelson, O, Brother Where Art Thou? However, the point of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the anthology film, isn’t about building a story—or much of anything really. Rather it is a vast sheet whereon the Coens can pen and paint the Old West in all the many tonal and subgenre hues they can imagine—lyrical, romantic, supernatural, and sometimes painfully minimalist. As a storytelling exercise from two masters with more than one great Western notched on their gunbelt, it can always be fascinating, if not always wildly entertaining. Like most other anthological films, it suffers in that not all of its stories are of equal value and amusement. And by beginning with their funniest (and sharpest) piece, it is a bit downhill for the rest of the drive West.
The conceit of the film is to break the movie into six chapters via an old turn of the (20th) century storybook, each with its own illustration and cryptic title that teases of the strangeness to follow. In addition to Buster and his guitar and guts, there’s James Franco as a would-be bad man who picks the wrong bank to rob in Stephen Roots’ neck of the woods; Liam Neeson as an impresario grifter who seduces the cattle towns by having an armless, legless actor (Harry Melling) recite “The Gettysburg Address;” Tom Waits as an old-timey prospector who might just have finally struck gold in an emerald valley; Zoe Kazan as a young woman who doesn’t really know why she is on the Oregon Trail; and five strangers on a stagecoach at midnight headed to an unknowable destination.
Each of these vignettes have their charms in no small part thanks to the Coens’ penchant for homespun doggerel that cheerfully walks the line between profundity and frontier gibberish. All the shorts have a malleable melancholy, whether overt or underlying, which along with frequent bursts of sudden violence remains the only thematic connection between the sometimes severe tonal shifts.
This is most pronounced, and moving, in the other short that could have been a feature unto itself, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Starring Kazan as a reticent sister who follows her brother to Oregon, but has no idea what to do when he dies halfway on the trail, the film features a warmth and humanity that transcends the Coens’ otherwise glib treatment of the other characters. A romance started as much out of financial practicality between Kazan’s heroine and Bill Heck’s attentive cowpoke has a quixotic charm about it, if for no other reason than Heck (who made a surprisingly dashing Christopher Isherwood on stage) actually passes for a cowboy instead of an affectation of one. The benefit of this approach is visible in its rather rousing climax, which is probably the only genuinely exciting moment in the six stories despite all the gunplay and flying arrows therein. It is here that the Coens’ John Ford influence is really channeled.
That is because with exception to the two aforementioned stories, none of the other segments have enough time to fully develop their ideas, and some are so thin that they weren’t necessarily needed at all. At 132 minutes, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs runs long, and longer still when you’re stuck in shorts like “Near Algodones” and “Meal Ticket,” the second and third chapters which succumb to the Coens’ worst impulses when trying to be ruggedly esoteric about the pretensions of life in the heartland.
Still, considered as a whole, the net positives in Buster Scruggs outweigh its shortcomings. While there are weaker shorts, there are also great ones. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled” are the best, but Tom Waits as a shrewd old-timer with pickaxe in his hand, or figures of frontier justice waxing poetic about crossing the bar during the witching hour in the final campfire tale, have their charms, as does seeing the Coens dabble in unfamiliar territory like expressionistic set design in that last story.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs shoots wide, and it is therefore the nature of the beast that not all volleys find their marks. But the majority sing with a clarity of masterful precision, and all feature uniformly fantastic acting and the elements that Coen aficionados have come to expect: gorgeous cinematography, westward wit, and a devotion to finding the best extras and background players possible. For that kind of territory’s most frequent travelers, it already feels like home.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs premiered at the NYFF on Oct. 4 and premieres on Netflix in November.