New York Stories and V/H/S are among the most notable anthology movies, but the best known of all is already 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the most recent film from Joel and Ethan Coen. In Buster Scruggs, the directors open and close each of the movie’s six short films by flipping through the fictional book of short stories that the tales emanate from. This is apt imagery from a collection of unconnected, darkly comedic Westerns that belongs on a list among the best short stories in any medium.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, originally thought to be written as an anthology television series (like Black Mirror and Fargo), was released as a single, standalone movie, and the product is better for it. If we’re lucky, the industry will be better for it, too, as copycat anthology films come along. Who doesn’t love a short film? The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is named after the first of its six short films, a musical featuring a good-natured gunslinger, the titular Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), as he sings and shoots his way across the West. James Franco stars as an unnamed cowboy attempting to rob a bank in the second (and perhaps weakest) short, “Near Algodones.”
“Meal Ticket,” which, for my money, will be the most memorable of the six tales, stars Liam Neeson as the Impresario, the proprietor of a legless, armless man (Harry Melling) who recites poetry, biblical stories, and the Gettysburg address from a small, traveling stage. “All Gold Canyon,” based on a Jack London story, is about an old prospector (Tom Waits) digging through a valley for one last pocket of gold. It has more than a few hints of 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” follows Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) making the year-long trek in a wagon-train to Oregon. Westerns are among the most common genre films, but we aren’t given the opportunity to see the journey west. The final tale, “The Mortal Remains” sees a pair of bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson) transporting a body on a carriage ride with a group of strangers. Together, these stories paint a bleak, amusing portrait of the American expansion westward.
In a small anomaly, regular-Coen collaborator and cinematographer Roger Deakins did not shoot Buster Scruggs. Instead, Bruno Delbonnel (who last worked with the Coens on Inside Llewyn Davis) subbed in for Deakins. The directors could’ve done worse—Buster Scruggs is one of the best looking movies of the year. It took decades, but between the mixture of exquisite wide shots and gritty close-ups, we have finally perfected photography in the Western genre.
The Coens themselves seem perfect for the Western genre. Their nearly nihilistic approach to the chaos of life, especially during the post-Civil War era, fits the ruthless, unforgiving nature of the old West like a glove. Add the lyrical dialogue of Buster Scruggs, fate’s cruel indifference in “Near Algodones,” and the debate between strangers in “The Mortal Remains” and you’ll have proof: nobody does it quite like the Coens.