Let us open this book of stories of the Old West and see what is inside. First up, we are greeted by a singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) who is travelling through a canyon on his faithful horse, strumming away on his guitar, yet despite his apparently amiable personality and way with a tune, he may not be quite as friendly as he seems. This is much in evidence when he rides up to a tavern and walks in, resplendent in his bright white outfit, and asks for a shot of whisky, but is refused when the barman tells him grimly that this is a dry state where no whisky is sold. What's that the other patrons are drinking, then? Whisky. Buster knows when he is not wanted, and punishes this rudeness...
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was an anthology movie, but not designed that way, as it started life when Netflix approached the Coen Brothers asking if they had a series idea they could work on with them. They had been cultivating Western shorts for some years, being fans of the genre which you could tell from even their non-Western outings yet had filmed none of them, but as it transpired the television episodes were too skimpy for justifying a Netflix series and were edited into one two-hour movie instead. This was released into cinemas for a week before it appeared on the streaming platform in case anyone wanted to garland it with awards, but in effect the reaction was muted.
It appeared that the Netflix association served up lowered expectations, and the notion that if it was not a series then their film originals were of less importance may have been borne out by the product that fell under that banner, but this meant some of it was underrated. Fair enough, this was no classic to join the Coens' pantheon of all-time greats (though typically with them, you will rarely find unanimous agreement on what precisely were their all-time greats, as they appealed to different people in different ways), but the stop-start format did mean it felt like neither one thing or another as far as the format went, and those who tried it found an inconsistent curate's egg.
However, it was really only inconsistent because each story adopted its own approach, therefore one was a comedy musical, while another was a romance, and yet another was a shaggy dog story, and no matter their sharing of the Western milieu you nevertheless had a demonstration of the variety the genre could serve up. If anyone tells you Westerns are all the same, it was as if the Coens had gone out of their way to dispel that myth of perception by running as various a gamut of tales as they could, which might have been better delivered in series style, though that would mean a TV show where some episodes were fifteen minutes long while others were half an hour or forty-five minutes. The inconsistency in that should not really be a problem - nobody complains if in a book short stories are of differing lengths - but the televisual roots were hard to ignore.
That was in defiance of some beautiful cinematography courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel, digitally capturing impressive landscapes and adding the atmospherics when needed. While the anthology had been embraced in the twenty-first century by horror movies, curiously taking their lead from Amicus in Britain during the sixties and seventies and mostly of the low budget strain, Westerns were another proposition, though horror trappings were to be found in most of the yarns here. This was largely to underline how brutal the West of myth and legend could be in reality, though little about this came across as drama-documentary, but each of them concerned how arbitrary death could be as a visitor in every life at that point in time. Musings over how art would eventually be rejected in favour of trash, or seizing the moment was vital when everything could come crashing down tomorrow were valid, but there was no real flow. Not a dud by any means, just a bit awkward in presentation. Music by Carter Burwell.