The newest film from Joel and Ethan Coen (the minds behind Fargo and The Big Lebowski) is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology-style western dramedy. Originally conceived as a web series, but instead cut into a feature-length film, the film features six stories, each dealing with a different aspect of life in the Old West.
Unfortunately, even filmmakers who are as talented and prolific as the Coen Brothers aren’t immune to the issues that plague the anthology film. Like a majority of films that follow this structure, there were some segments that were great and some that were not so impressive. The film starts off very strongly, but gradually declines to a mildly underwhelming finish.
The eponymous first segment is certainly the strongest of the batch. This segment follows a cocky gunslinger. This part of the film contains the most instances of the Coens’ signature style. The darkly comic and cynical humor is absolutely hilarious, and the twists on the genre tropes are refreshing. This segment is also a musical, which adds to the irony. Plus, Tim Blake Nelson’s performance is wonderful.
Perhaps the weakest segment is “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, the fifth segment in the film, which follows a young woman travelling with a wagon train. Although the protagonist of this segment is compelling, this only goes so far, and the story itself is rather typical. Additionally, the supporting characters weren’t particularly likable. This segment felt overlong and dry compared to the rest of the film.
The other four segments, “Near Algodones”, “Meal Ticket”, “All Gold Canyon”, and “The Mortal Remains”, fall somewhere in-between. All three have glimpses of potential Coen greatness, but never quite capture the magic. That being said, they are all led by strong performances.
Additionally, many of the segments felt incohesive. Only “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “All Gold Canyon” felt like they had a complete arc. The endings of the other segments were all abrupt or left questions unresolved. Furthermore, the film as a whole feels extremely fragmented because there is little thematically tying the segments together — only the genre and setting of the Old West.
However, the film is as aesthetically strong as one can expect of the Coens. They have a very distinct visual style, and that certainly shines through in this film. Plus, the anthology structure allows them to experiment in combining their distinct visual tones, like the ironically bright (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) and the dark and cynical (“The Mortal Remains”).
There were a few great moments in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but it is likely one of the Coens’ weaker films overall because some of its segments that were lacking. Nonetheless, it is still worth a watch.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs opens in select theaters November 8 and is on Netflix beginning November 16.