Coen Brothers’ Latest Is a Hit-or-Miss Wild West Anthology

Netflix’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is another Oscar hopeful for the streaming service.

Lily Dolin
Tim Blake Nelson as the titular character in "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." (Courtesy of Cinetic Media)

Those who love the lawless, gun-slinging, John Wayne-esque style of the Wild West will be pleased to know there’s a new Western film on the horizon. To be accurate, six. The new Coen Brothers anthology film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” — Netflix’s latest entry to its canon — is comprised of half a dozen beautifully shot vignettes that explore the nihilistic nature of life and man, albeit at a lagging pace.

The first vignette follows the movie’s titular character, a misanthropic and deadly cowboy named Buster Scruggs. The protagonist, played by the wickedly funny Tim Blake Nelson, sings and dances his way from one town to the next, schooling others in the error of their ways and racking up an impressive body count. In the second installment, “Near Algodones,” James Franco plays a crafty cowboy who finds himself in a series of precarious situations. The first two shorts are upbeat, comedic and utterly engaging from start to finish.

“Meal Ticket” stars Liam Neeson, a disheveled stage manager and Harry Melling, a melancholy quadriplegic who is part of Neeson’s traveling circus. While the ending was shocking and poignant, its impact was lessened by the chapter’s ineffective pacing. This story has a slow-burn approach, leaving the viewer restless and disconnected in anticipation of excitement. The next installment, “All Gold Canyons,” suffers from a similarly slow pace. This story follows a crotchety gold miner, played by Tom Waits, who gets more than he bargained for when he defiles Mother Nature in search of buried riches.

The film picks up a bit with “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” which can best be described as a very loose interpretation of Romeo and Juliet that is set on the Oregon Trail. Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck play two young pioneers who are brought together — and torn apart — by the cruel winds of fate.

“The Mortal Remains,” the last short of the film, is a beautifully haunting homage to the John Ford classic “Stagecoach.” In it, five strangers barrel down a winding Western road and learn more about each other as they draw closer to their final destination. With sinister cinematography, an incredible performance by Jonjo O’Neill and an intentionally confusing ending, this story is sure to keep viewers talking even after the screen dims.

The best part about this movie is that every short has a killer twist ending that takes the story in a new and completely surprising direction; the film is similar to Netflix’s own “Black Mirror,” but the episodes are crammed together for a nearly two-hour feature. The Coen Brothers take traditional Western plot lines and flip them on their heads once, twice even three times over. If you think you know where a story is headed, think again. While each chapter’s plot is independent from the next, they all share a common theme: death. In a sense, death seems to be the only consistent character in the movie. However, the Coen Brothers do a wonderful job of weaving death throughout the film, using chaos and demise as a way to highlight the futility and randomness of our morbid world.

At times, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” trudges along. There are one too many sweeping shots of rolling fields and barren desserts that were perhaps more effective in the Coen brothers’ earlier film, the intense and cohesive Academy Award-winning “No Country for Old Men.” But overall, the film is a well crafted anthology full of clever twists, grim morals and plenty of spurs to go around.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is available on Netflix starting Nov. 16.

Email Lily Dolin at [email protected]

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