The Coen Brothers are the bards of cinematic quirk.
For more than 30 years, Joel and Ethan Coen have imbued their brand of off-kilter filmmaking with an erudite flourish. Their command of language, wielded across genres, is marked by witty wordplay, poetic progressions, and a precise cadence their dialogue often requires. (Ethan is notorious for not allowing actors to change one solitary syllable.)
In their new film, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," an anthology of six original Western short stories now playing exclusively on Netflix, they vaunt a folksy lore worthy of Twain and, at times—in the third chapter titled "Meal Ticket"—even Shakespeare himself.
But with a darkly comic existentialism tinged with inescapable Providence, it’s the literary voice of Flannery O’Connor that this collection most powerfully evokes.
Unlike most movie anthologies that loosely tie their stories together, there’s no connective tissue across these American West fables. Instead, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" gives us 15-to-20 minute Coen-flavored morsels, plus a second-to-last 45-minute saga called "The Girl Who Got Rattled." Of all the tales here, that one—starring Zoe Kazan as a modest woman who finds romance on a wagon train—could’ve easily been fleshed out into a feature all on its own.
Not that the other five are slight. Each anecdote strikes an inspired premise, then unfolds with whimsical irony, contemplative intrigue, or despairing ennui, all with the Coens’ farcical melancholy, before subversively packing their punches without overstaying their welcome.
They also have shocking bursts of violence, in true Coen fashion. Take, for example, the titular opening yarn about a sharp-shooting balladeer played by Coen veteran and Tulsa native Tim Blake
Nelson. His howdy-ho cowboy crooner Buster Scruggs is like Gene Autry by way of Quentin Tarantino.
Subsequent chapters hold a similar tension between the droll and the dreadful, jarring us with gallows humor and bloody consequences. There’s a violence deep in the human condition as well, with displays of harsh cruelty and, more helplessly, turns that are mercilessly unjust.
As in their Job-like "A Serious Man," the Coens simultaneously laugh at and lament the cosmic game that we are all pawns in, yet they also take a humble, reverent posture at the arrogant absurdity of expecting (or demanding) answers.
The whole exercise allows them to work with a deep bench ensemble, too—Liam Neeson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Tyne Daley, and Brendan Gleeson among them. Perhaps the best surprise is singer Tom Waits who, with his weathered vocals and visage, plays an endearing prospector mining a picturesque mountain valley.
The entire film is beautifully lensed, even if its digital canvas (a first for the Coens, who’ve always shot on celluloid) causes some lights and colors to hue flat or wash out.
But no matter the setting or tone, these stories grapple with the same Flannery-esque themes of fortune and fate; sin and consequence; virtue and vice; truth and relativism; and life, death, and judgment. So too, it reckons, must we all.