“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is not like any movie you’ve ever seen before.That’s because Joel and Ethan Coens’ 2-hour, 12-minute film on Netflix (and in select theaters) isn’t one long, continuous narrative. It’s an anthology film filled with short films, with no connection to each other, telling stories at various lengths with a wide assortment of characters.
There’s Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) a singin’ gunslinger. There’s a cowboy who has come across some major misfortune. There’s a woman (Zoe Kazan) on a wagon train that runs into all sorts of trouble, and many more.
The stories couldn’t hold a full-length film and they have too much production value and star power to be simple shorts. However, woven together with their own individual titles, it feels like reading a collection of western short stories. And much like the short stories of anthology collections I read in college, they don’t often have happy endings. Instead, they give you something to think about. If you’re looking for a movie that will keep you awake at night wondering, “What did that mean? What could that symbolize? Why didn’t that character just do this?” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is your insomnia-inducing, philosophical think piece.
Aside from the unusual arrangement of stories, the Coen brothers bring their Oscar-winning expertise to each tale with looks and plots completely different from each other. One short might have little dialogue, almost feeling like a silent film. Another is mostly dialogue. One might have vibrant colors and show off the beauty of the Western landscape. Another takes place mostly in the dark, eerie wilderness.
I’ll admit, I didn’t like it at first, but the more I thought about it, the more the idea and the stories grew on me. The idea itself is truly genius and works best for a streaming service. I’m sure one day in the future I’ll watch them again, maybe not all at once, or maybe just my favorites (that’s the other beauty of a film anthology, you don’t have to watch them all) and try to analyze them more thoroughly.