It’s a pity the title “A Million Ways to Die in the West” was already taken, because it would have been perfect for the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
The movie is an anthology modeled on an old-timey book of short stories entitled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Stories,” which raises the same issue I have with actual books of short stories: A story you like ends just when you’re getting wrapped up in it, while one you don’t like makes you want to skip ahead to the next one.
The six stories, each of them a western, differ wildly in tone and plot. One (my favorite, and the most perfectly realized one) is a farcical comedy; another is eerie and disturbing. It wasn’t till nearly two hours into a 132-minute film that I even noticed the connecting thread: death. A lot of dying takes place, together with a fair amount of gore, but because of how desensitized to violence the western makes its viewers, the endless loss of life doesn’t even seem noteworthy at first. Life was cheap in the Old West, or at least it was in old westerns, and given the Coen brothers’ longstanding habit of playing with the history of their medium in which they work, I think our relationship with what Variety used to call “oaters” is the focus of their interest. As is usually the case with Coen movies, there’s a bit more going on than meets the eye. Fortunately there will be plenty of opportunities for rewatching: The Coens made the film with Netflix, which will release it on its streaming service on November 16 while also putting it in a few movie theaters. I don’t think it’s the kind of movie that begs to be seen on the big screen, though.
The Coens say they have assembled the script from stories they’ve been working on for some 25 years, which doesn’t raise my level of confidence that they click together all that well. “Let’s clean out the bottom drawer of our desk” isn’t such an inspiring genesis for a project. Originally the Coens planned to make a miniseries out of these six stories, but as it is some of them (one in particular) drag on far too long. My two favorite pieces, both comedies, are among the short ones. One of them, a delight (also) called “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” makes the most of Tim Blake Nelson as a singing cowboy with a surprisingly ready six-shooter; the other, “Near Algodones,” stars James Franco and Stephen Root as a bank robber and a teller whose interaction doesn’t go the way either of them expects. Nelson is so funny he deserves an Oscar nomination (the Academy owes him one after overlooking him for O Brother, Where Art Thou?) but I’ll not say more about his segment, which depends heavily on surprises. Franco’s story isn’t quite as nutty but works nicely.
As the film goes on, things turn increasingly dark. In the episode “Meal Ticket,” Liam Neeson plays a traveling peddler who has one product to sell: an entertainer played by Harry Melling. There’s a hint of an allegorical purpose to this one: You could read it as a sly commentary about the tastes of the mass audience, who when given the option between soul-stirring uplift and cheap party tricks tend to prefer the latter, whether at the multiplex or in a dusty town on the frontier. In “All Gold Canyon,” a crusty but kind-hearted prospector (Tom Waits) painstakingly follows the clues that might lead him to a fortune in gold, while in “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” Zoe Kazan plays a young woman who sets out with her brother on a wagon-train journey amid fierce Indian battles and a troublesome dog named President Pierce. The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” starring Jonjo O’Neill and Chelcie Ross, takes place during a stagecoach journey that brings together several strangers and heads for an uncertain final destination.
The film does follow a linear development of sorts, from ridiculousness to a more rueful variety of comedy to tragedy before pulling back to an existential inquiry. With all the clashing of styles and moods, Buster Scruggs is like a digest of the Coen brothers’ entire opus, currently in its fourth decade of excitedly exploring one genre after another. It’s a jarring experience to undergo in a single sitting, though, and not an entirely satisfying one. Perhaps future re-viewings will create deeper appreciation for a nettlesome work.