Yee-haw! Any new film from Joel and Ethan Coen is cause for celebration. So what about six new films?

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t that, exactly: The Coens’ first project for Netflix was initially rumored to be an episodic series—erroneously, it turns out—but appeared last week in your Netflix account as a single anthology film that contains six discrete stories. They’re all set in the Wild West with varying degrees of realism, and they all tackle, in that sideways Coen brothers style, the mythology and iconography of frontier America, as expressed through western books, films, and songs. Oh, and they’re all—either obliquely or directly—about death.

It’s the Coens’ longest and most unwieldy film to date, but without exception, every chapter is an extraordinarily well-made piece of storytelling. How well the different pieces fit together will be a matter of opinion (I’d recommend watching it in chunks, at least on the first sitting), but like everything the Coens have committed to celluloid—Scruggs being the first project they’ve shot digitally—it’s both confounding and profound, doling out morbidity and hilarity in equal doses and standing up to repeat viewings and argumentative theorizing. It’s a strange, brilliant, inexplicable thing. In other words, it’s a Coen brothers movie.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs gets its title from the first story, about a singing cowboy who’s also a murderous psychopath, played by a side-splittingly funny Tim Blake Nelson. This is the Coens at their most mischievous, setting Roy Rogers cornpone against Grand Guignol violence. The second section is just as sadistic and comic, with James Franco’s bank robber facing an ever-trickier series of near-death scrapes.


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t behave like a typical movie—not even a typical Coen brothers movie.


That playfulness is nowhere to be found in the third story, one of the bleakest things the Coens have ever done. A traveling impresario (Liam Neeson) and an armless, legless orator (Harry Melling) go from town to town, facing dwindling, disinterested crowds and a brutally cold winter. The fourth section, thankfully, acts as a balm, with the Coens tackling the western tradition of the pastoral interlude. It’s the oddly heart-warming tale of a prospector (a stunningly good Tom Waits) as he looks for gold in a gorgeously pristine, verdant valley.

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Part five, the longest, is the most cogent and dimensional story, about a young woman (Zoe Kazan) on a wagon train to Oregon. And the final chapter is the most mystifying, as passengers in a crowded stagecoach cross over into a mysterious place.

Each of the stories feels small, almost minimal, as though something is deliberately missing. And although they share an Old West milieu and a preoccupation with death, you have to strain pretty hard to find any connective thematic tissue between the various chapters. Scruggs doesn’t behave like a typical movie—not even a typical Coen brothers movie. But these two have been amusing themselves—and us—with evasive, masterful films for more than three decades, and we’ll be arguing about the “meaning” of Buster Scruggs’ shaggy, baffling, wonderful stories for years to come. For now, giddy-up and ride.

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