The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology movie with six stories set in the American Wild West. The themes range from “Death will get you” to “No, seriously, Death will fucking get you.”
That is not a joke. Sudden death is a presence in every story. It was jarring at first but once you accept it, the stories meld together to form a wonderful tapestry about the lethality of the Old West. By the time the sixth story rolls around, you will be nodding wisely as the characters discuss perplexing a man’s final moments can be.
This movie feels like a rebuttal to the discussions involving No Country for Old Men. Critics complained that the ending of that movie was too off, without a satisfying final battle. This movie feels like it is trying again to explain to audiences that stories don’t kill characters, characters kill themselves by the nature of who they are.
The first story, featuring Buster Scruggs, is about a singing cowboy that happens to be a murder machine to anyone who crosses him. That is easily the funniest story, although the second story about a luckless bank robber is pretty close. The third story is a silent, haunting story was too bleak for my wife to continue watching, but that story lingered with me the most and I think about it often.
After the grimness of the the third story, the fourth story, based on a Jack London story, inserts some life and beauty before returning to the theme of death. The fifth story is a lovely romance and the sixth is a delightful meta-story about the themes.
As good as the stories are, the scenery steals the movie. Gorgeous shot after shot of the Western landscape made me nostalgic for a place I have never been. Even the imagery in the third story is breathtaking with its icy bleakness. The accompanying music is perfect and the soundtrack is a delight.
I am a big Coen Brother fan, and this one shoots to the top of my favorites list.