A Western omnibus film from Ethan and Joel Coen – made for the big screen, with majestic vistas of the American West, but dropping on Netflix after a scant few theatrical showings to qualify for awards. Given that anthology movies seldom click commercially – I suspect the last big hit for the form was Pulp Fiction – this was probably a sound decision, though the almost throwaway release does mean a strange lack of a sense of event around one of the best films of the year. The Coens have always been drawn to the Western, salting their films with references like the cowboy narrator of The Big Lebowski and eventually delivering one of the best recent classical oaters in True Grit. They also like the sorts of twisty little crime stories associated with EC’s SuspenStories comics and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and enough macabre elements crop up in Buster Scruggs to give it the feel of a cowboy Creepshow – with a doubly stagebound final story (‘The Mortal Remains’) that ventures almost into the realm of Amicus as stagecoach passengers converse unnervingly, then debark on a misty stage set that suggests a border into another world has been crossed.
The linking material is a book of frontier stories – a lovingly-created object (supposedly published in 1873, though several of the stories seem to take place after that date) complete with ragged-cut pages, pastiche prose and colour figures (whose titles are intriguing teasers or ominous hints or non sequiturs, as required). What we have in this array of twisted tales is a vision of the Western as it was before Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. Typically Coenian us the use of elements of the genre long since fallen out of fashion or into disrepute, from an episode about singing cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), who warbles his way along the trail in impeccable all-white duds (though he’s only literally a white hat), to the violent intrusion into several narratives of native Americans presented as war-whooping ‘injuns’ (NB: the stories don’t, on the whole, show white people in a particularly flattering light). Episodes deal with panning for gold (Tom Waits in an adaptation of a Jack London story), a Tod Browning-ish bleak anecdote of a travelling show (grunting Liam Neeson and eloquent Harry Melling), a bank robber (James Franco) seemingly destined for the end of a rope, and a wagon train where a meek woman (Zoe Kazan) and a shy wagonmaster (Bill Heck) manage shy courtly romance but an older trail boss (Grainger Hines) senses doom.
In the first episode, the title story, the film establishes the arbitrary nature of violence in the West – Buster Scruggs is as handy at gunning men down or getting them to gun themselves as he is at yodelling, but learns the lesson Gregory Peck demonstrated in The Gunfighter in 1950 – and all the other tales build tension as we know that at any moment a gunshot could ring out and a main character could drop. There’s malign menace in a backshooting claim-jumper, the absurd temptation of a dancing chicken, and a sinister turn in stagecoach conversation that prompts all the passengers to thoughts of death. The Coens love to shoot calm landscapes and fast, upsetting action – though I regret the use of CGI bloodstains in shoot-outs – but are also attuned to music and dialogue … Buster Scruggs reprises ‘Cool Clear Water’ (made famous by the Sons of the Pioneers) as he rides along the trail and commemorates a brief cameo by Clancy Brown with a spirited, all-join-in saloon knees-up to ‘Curly Joe’ (echoing Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again) and later Liam Neeson grunts drunkenly through ‘The Sash My Father Wore’ in an episode that features non-stop overlapping speeches from literature and history delivered by ‘the wingless bird’ (Melling) but almost no dialogue. ‘The Gal Who Was Rattled’, the most developed anecdote, is also a study in taciturnity and loquaciousness, with a key character who says nothing until a change in circumstances prompts a major speech – which is a set up for a punchline that depends on the misinterpretation of a sound effect. And the stagecoach story is all talk – with Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, Jonjo O’Neill and Chelcie Ross stirred by a journey in close proximity to discuss all manner of things at length – Ross as a trapper back from months of enforced silence owns up to tediousness as he vents – as they all realise things about their travelling companions.