It's a crying shame the title A Million Ways To Die In The West already has been used by another movie, because that moniker fits Joel and Ethan Coen's latest feature to a tee. The specter of death looms large over every character in the six chapters that make up the full anthology The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (even though Buster, himself, doesn't make it beyond the opening vignette, so the movie's actual title kind of confuses). Once you get behind the shadow of death, however, the takeaways from this experiment are really hit and miss, so Ballad isn't a full-blown recommendation.
To understand what goes wrong with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in my humble opinion, requires knowledge of its history. The Coen brothers, best know for producing brilliant feature films, entered into Ballad with the intention of creating a six-part anthology television series, each based on short stories they'd penned over the years. They're all Westerns, but that's all they have in common. There's no larger thread connecting the tales in any way.
Halfway along the process, however, the Coens decided to abandon the TV format (perhaps someone reminded them that they are the Coen Brothers, and they don't do TV), so they retrofitted their footage into a two-hour movie, without abandoning the anthology format -- even though there's no reason for it, in the grand scheme.
The stories are very clearly born from the mind of Joel and Ethan Coen, though, meaning they're acerbic and often quick-witted, droll, surprisingly heartfelt, cold and calculated but often loose-fitting.
But half of the segments -- at least -- also feel like they started out as much longer concepts that could have been explored in an hour-long episode. And the ones that suffer from the transition from TV series to feature-length movies are basically cut off at the knees. (The final chapter, "The Mortal Remains," feels the most incomplete, literally just stopping when the passengers of a stagecoach arrive at their destination, right when it feels like the story is about to take off.)
It's very difficult to watch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs without wondering what might have been. If the brothers stuck with their idea of exploring these stories as a TV series, where could the tale of Tom Waits, playing an obsessive gold prospector, have gone? Or what of James Franco, playing a bank-robbing cowboy who gets his head stuck in the wrong noose?
The best chapter in the incomplete experiment, to me, is called "The Girl Who Got Rattled," and I'll tell you next to nothing about it, for it's the only one that's allowed un unfurl casually and actually earn its emotional conclusion. Seeing how well that segment was paced and performed made me wish that all of the chapters in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs were afforded the same care.
Perhaps I'm inaccurate, and this is exactly what the Coens wanted, though? The short stories can meet tragic and unexpected endings, because the only real takeaway from each chapter -- and the movie, on whole -- is that the Old West was a ridiculously dangerous time, and the Grim Reaper could come calling for anyone, regardless of stature.
But if that's the moral of the story in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it becomes repetitive, and a little obvious, by Coen standards. Sure, there's fun to be had in the gallows humor weaving throughout the short stories on display here. But in general, Buster Scruggs feels undercooked, and is a meager addition to the Coen filmography -- I suspect because they didn't intend for it to be a film, at all.