The first feature film was a Western. Shot in Australia in 1906, The Story of the Kelly Gang, now largely lost, was the first car in an endless genre train. And more than a century later, there's no sign of the caboose.
Reaffirming their genius, Joel and Ethan Coen have fashioned something fairly new for the old genre: an anthology featuring six iconic types of characters from the late 19th-century frontier. Of course, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn't truly new at all, and even the Coens themselves have experimented with shorts before (just not in their own theatrically released feature). But, as usual, they make it seem fresh. Admittedly, their 132-minute ride is quite bumpy, but the scenery is irresistible. (I'm now quit of locomotive metaphors, I promise, but beware a forthcoming stagecoach analogy.)
Written over the course of the Coens' careers and originally conceived as a Netflix miniseries, the film begins rousingly with the best short of the bunch. Sharing its name with the title of the overall movie, it features a wonderful performance by Tim Blake Nelson as a singing gunslinger who is the best shot in the territory and a gentleman to boot. Uproariously funny – with the best sight gag of the year – this comedy-musical gives way to other shorts of varying quality and mood.
For instance, we get a dramedy with James Franco (disappointing as usual) and Stephen Root (pleasing as always); a lonely, gothic drama with Liam Neeson and Harry Melling (of the Harry Potter films); a tall tale with Tom Waits; an irony-laden mini-feature with Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck and Grainger Hines; and even a dramedy-musical-suspense with Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson and Saul Rubinek (Frasier, Unforgiven). And along the way, we meet bank robbers, traveling entertainers, gold prospectors, covered-wagon settlers and an odd assortment of coach travelers.
If you look for a joining narrative, you'll come up empty. Nevertheless, all six stories are surprisingly linked by loss, death and, in many cases, violence. While the presence of the Grim Reaper in all the shorts (even the farcical first offering) shouldn't surprise anyone considering the Coens' dark brand of humor, the amount of blood is occasionally off-putting. But the Coens obviously wanted to use every color on their palette to paint the Old West, and the result is vivid, vibrant and stylistic. (Hats off to master cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who previously shot the brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. He just might be the best visual cinematic artist you haven't heard of.)
As with most anthologies, Buster Scruggs is less than the sum of its parts. Indeed, when the final story comes to a somewhat unfulfilling end, one is left a bit empty. Perhaps that speaks to the film's shortcomings, or perhaps it represents our own disappointment that another little Coen nugget – mediocre though a couple of them are – is not waiting around the next bend in the trail.