One of the greatest things about anthology films is that with a selection of shorts tied together, it’s okay if one isn’t as strong as the others because there’s always a new story just around the corner. In “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Joel and Ethan Coen bring their signature concoction of black humor and devilish drama to make a Western with six distinct, individual parts.
Two are phenomenal (a widowed woman and her yappy dog walking along a wagon train in “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” and a stagecoach ride from hell in “The Mortal Remains”), two that could be better but are still memorable (a crazed lone prospector in “Gold Canyon,” and a lucky songbird cowboy who’s the quickest draw in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”), and two that are mediocre and mostly forgettable (the cruel and depressing tale of a limbless boy and his brother in “Meal Ticket,” and the story of an unfortunate bank robbing outlaw in “Near Algodones”). You’ll have your favorites, too.
The Coens have pieced together some of the best actors in Hollywood, each vignette perfectly cast. From James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, and Tom Waits to Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Kazan, and Tyne Daly, this star-studded affair never once feels like a gimmick. The short stories each have an element of the philosophical as it relates to mortality, piecing together genres like comedy, surrealism, and even a musical. It’s funny, it’s grim, and the format probably would’ve been better suited as a television series than crammed together into one movie. The film feels awkward at every turn.
I appreciate what the directors are aiming for and they mostly succeed, but this film is best dissected into bite-sized pieces than watched as a whole. The choice stories could work as standalone films, the very worst feel underdeveloped and boring. Still, the shorts that are the strongest more than make up for the flaws in the others, carrying the film along the way even as it starts limping. This is a fun project that fans of the Coen brothers will likely love.