The six segments in Joel and Ethan Coen’s omnibus feature The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are each introduced as stories from a dusty old book of Western tales, and while that book is entirely made up, it’s not hard to believe that the Coens could have adapted this material from an obscure contemporary of Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey. The glimpses of the opening and closing lines of the stories are tantalizing enough to make you wish that the Coens would publish the entire (nonexistent) collection.
The screen version is a pretty good substitute, though. Like any anthology, Ballad (which was originally conceived as a TV series for Netflix) is uneven, with some segments never quite reaching their potential. In particular, “Near Algodones,” starring James Franco as an uncommonly unlucky bank robber, cuts off just as it seems to be gathering momentum, ending on an abrupt, inscrutable note. By contrast, “All Gold Canyon,” starring Tom Waits as lone determined prospector, stretches out interminably, showing every last detail of the prospector’s efforts, even (or especially) the most mundane.
But the Coens have always been good at making poetry from the mundane, and even the most frustrating segments in Ballad have their flashes of mirth and wonder. The eponymous opening story is hilarious in its depiction of the title character, a murderous singing cowboy played by Coens favorite Tim Blake Nelson. The funniest bit in the entire movie involves Buster getting a rival cowboy to shoot himself in the face multiple times. Buster’s misadventures are incredibly violent, but in such a cartoonish way that there isn’t any serious weight to them.
Things get heavier from there, most effectively in the movie’s standout segment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which features Zoe Kazan as a young woman on the Oregon Trail who ends up in surprisingly sweet courtship with one of the wagon masters (Bill Heck). It’s almost too pleasant and upbeat for the Coens, which may make the tragic gut-punch of an ending inevitable—although no less heartbreaking. The similarly bleak ending to “Meal Ticket,” with Liam Neeson as a traveling entertainer who works with an armless, legless star, doesn’t make as strong an impact, because the audience hasn’t gotten as much of a chance to know the characters.
It’s easy to see how “The Gal Who Got Rattled” would be worth watching at feature length, but the story works perfectly in the time allotted, and the final segment, with a stagecoach full of oddball characters who may be on their way to the afterlife, offers a kind of closure that makes a convincing case for Ballad as a movie and not just a pre-binged TV series. The bite-size stories don’t quite have enough time to make as lasting an impression as the Coens’ best movies, but as a sort of unexpected detour, Ballad provides plenty of satisfying moments.
The Western vistas look lovely (even more so on the big screen, where a disappointingly small number of viewers will get to see them), the dialogue is characteristically sharp, and many of the performances (particularly Kazan as the soulful pioneer woman and Nelson as the gleeful sociopath) are impressive. Ballad may not be a TV series, but if the Coens wanted to open that fake book back up and spin some more yarns, more episodes would be welcome.