The Ballad of Buster Scruggs


Opening Friday, Nov. 16

The latest from the Coen brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is an anthology of six Old West short films and a must-see for those who appreciate the Coens’ Western oeuvre—films like True Grit and No Country for Old Men. The six shorts are of varying quality, but the last three are so good that they reflect glory back on the first three.

The opening act, with Tim Blake Nelson as a crooning cowboy, is the Coens at their smug and smirking worst. They have a thirty-year record of using ultra-violence as a punch line, and goddamn, it’s a tired bit. The second story, with James Franco as a bank robber, is little better, but it’s partially redeemed by Stephen Root as the West’s looniest banker. Liam Neeson heads up the third tale, “Meal Ticket,” about a traveling wagon show and a limbless thespian.

Then comes the gold rush: Tom Waits anchors the wildly entertaining “All Gold Canyon” as a prospector with a method to his madness. It’s a near-perfect short film, a story that could only be told in this specific format. The penultimate tale is the most sincere, and the best. Zoe Kazan plays a homesteader on a wagon train as the filmmakers finally drop the smart-alecky stuff to evoke the vast emotional sweep of the classic Western. The final piece is a gem, too—a spooky stagecoach exchange among five fellow travelers with a common destination.

While Scruggs is opening at select theaters, as far as we know at press time, none of them are in the Triangle. It’s premiering on Netflix, which funded the project, something we’re going to see a lot more of as Netflix and other digital services continue their foray into original programming.