The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ★★★★

The Coen Brothers have made a career for themselves by sticking to a specific, instantly recognizable sensibility that singularly fuses existential dread with the absurd zaniness of a screwball comedy. In some of their lesser films, this cocktail gives way to an ugly misanthropy where characters are either unsung enlightened savants of the highest order, hopeless exemplars of the fruitless search for meaning, or mouth-breathing fools taking up space.

This penchant for nihilistic caricature can leave behind a bad taste when executed poorly, but their latest effort, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, sings with a wonder and warmth that places it among their best. It opens on a leather-bound book, an eponymously titled collection of “tales from the American frontier,” where the audience is introduced to the six short fables—each introduced with a handsomely drawn color plate—that comprise this anthology film where brutality and randomness abound.

In Buster Scruggs, the Wild West becomes a playground. Unbound to any of the stories for more than 20-30 minutes at the very most, the Coens make great use of the anthology format to explore the disparate expanses of the frontier, from the arid beauty of John Ford’s monument valley, to the lush greenery of the Rockies in Spring, and everything in between. In swerving from setting to setting, story to story, the film also swings elegantly from the morbid to the madcap and back again.


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