Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Anthology films are a tricky beast, from Spirits of the Dead to Four Rooms, they are largely uneven affairs but nonetheless make for fascinating documents in director’s catalogues. There is a playfulness and inhibition that comes with these films, directors operating at their lowest stakes yield a kind of experimentation only found in film schools. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest from the Coen brothers, has less in common with those aforementioned films because those rotated through multiple directors from their respective eras. This film is more akin to Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, a single filmmaker shifting through different themes, ideas and moods. The biggest difference between Buster Scruggs and all these other films, is the Coens originally conceived the idea as a six episode anthology series, but due to the closure of George R.R. Martin’s Santa Fe film studio, they had to force some brevity on these tales. Which is a shame because some of these vignettes demand expansion.
The film opens with a very brief episode named after the film’s title, whose humor lies in its absurdity, however, with that absurdity comes a strong dose of frivolity. In this way it feels a bit more like the Coen’s The Big Lebowski, another breezy exercise of their own cleverness and skills. So inoffensive, moderately entertaining but nothing new for these seasoned filmmakers. The second episode, Near Algodones is a bit stronger in it’s impression upon the viewer, it has the passivity, frankness and coldness, of all the Coen’s best crime films. They have the fabulous skill of no matter how ridiculous the territory of the story, the Coen’s keep a level headedness during the whole affair that is absolutely refreshing even if the meaning is fabulously elusive.
The third episode Meal Ticket is likely to be the most polarizing in the whole film, it’s slow certainly but the conclusion is worth the patience. This episode succeeds mostly on it’s ruthless quality, sinking deeper and deeper into the darkness simmering beneath the surface. The ending has a quiet savagery similar to the finale of No Country for Old Men. The next episode All Gold Canyon has a similar slowness as the previous segment, which makes the middle section of this film a bit of a mess, they probably could have sequenced the film better, perhaps breaking up these two episodes as they form the center of the movie. Despite a gruff, moderately comical performance by Tom Waits this episode is probably the weakest and honestly would’ve been worse extended to an hour length, or perhaps that would’ve given the story more time for it’s meaning to come into clear focus.
The fifth episode The Gal who got Rattled is the best thing the Coen’s have done since A Simple Man, if they have more of these quaint western love stories up their sleeves, let’s see em’. The dialogue in this episode is pitch perfect, so clever that you might find yourself laughing out of amazement of the sheer wit at play. The shocking and tragic ending make the prospect of extension all the more tantalizing, really tickles the imagination when thinking about this story playing out in feature length format. The final episode The Mortal Remains features the snappiest dialogue and considering everything takes place within the confines of a stagecoach, is a testament to the Coen’s writing ability to make such a situation so dynamic. While the ending is slightly ridiculous, the finale was nonetheless entertaining.
Anthology films are often fun because not everything will stick. They function as playgrounds for the filmmakers to run their ideas around in, maybe even try out things they felt they could’ve done better in the past and maybe even some of their hopes for the future. This film is made for fans of the Coen brothers, if you love their movies consistently, then you will have an absolute blast with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. If you are a casual fan of their work, however, you may be better off picking up Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country for Old Men or any number of their classic films and watch something truly outstanding. In the latter days of their career the Coen’s seem to be growing more comfortable in their own skins, not always playing for keeps between Hail Caesar, Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit and now Buster Scruggs. While they may not be releasing the best films of their career they are certainly creating some of their most diverse and most liberated, the kind of movies you can only make after you snag an Oscar.