While the anthology film is nothing particularly new, it's most often relegated to horror—think Creepshow. We've almost definitely never seen one so intricately crafted and large in scope as with the Coen Brothers' new Netflix (and in select theaters) production, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Six disparate tales of the Wild West are told from various genre standpoints, from the dark comedy of a sing-songy gunslinger or the robber ever-destined for the gallows to the sparse and ultimately triumphant tale of the aged prospector and the subtle scares of a mysteriously populated stagecoach bound for who-knows-where.
The episodes, as it were, are at turns quite funny or heartbreaking or, in one case, almost Tolstoyan—though without a singular narrative thread interwoven throughout, it's challenging to carry the events or lessons of one tale with us into the next. This is by design, and Scruggs almost never stumbles in its pacing, but it can cause a sort of disconnect or cognitive dissonance when we're presented with such emotionally differing material in such a rapid-fire manner.
Special mentions abound, however, to the likes of Tim Blake Nelson as the titular Buster Scruggs, as funny and layered a performance as we've ever seen from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? vet. Kudos go as well to Harry Melling, whose turn as a limbless actor tethered to a Liam Neeson-run traveling theater act far surpasses what we know of the Harry Potter alum. Neeson, as always, is pretty damn good in the quieter moments.
But it's not all good news, especially in the case of Big Sick actor/writer Zoë Kazan's too-long and too-slow installment wherein a woman traveling by covered wagon caravan loses everything to the unforgiving era and region. Still, by the time we reach the final entry and are thrust into the capable hands of talented actors like Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly and Saul Rubinek, all is mostly forgiven.
It would surely be strange to take in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in a theater, though its sweeping panoramic vistas and stunning cinematography surely help defuse its more stilted moments. All the same, it's surely better to view on the couch at home where one might have a chance to pause and reflect if they so chose. The premise is interesting and the writing is solid—it's just not quite what we're used to, for better or for worse.
+Funny and dark and well-crafted
-Some episodes lag; some performances disappoint
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Directed by The Coen Brothers
With Nelson, Kazan, Gleeson, Daly, Rubinek and lots more
Netflix, R, 132 min.