The Coen brothers' new Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was born from their penchant for disorder. In six vignette tales of mischief and wonder, hopelessness abounds while daft characters reign. But this time, unlike in Burn After Reading or The Big Lebowski, as the Coens wended round through interminable turns, and people died or didn't die, I found myself struggling to care, anxious for things to wrap up. Maybe all these dutifully meaningless stories would have been easier to swallow spaced out into standalone episodes like the directors had originally planned.
In typical Coen fashion, most people in the movie meet ironic or wry deaths, but this time the Coens seem to be actively eschewing any deeper emotional connection between the audience and the characters. They opt for a lighter brush even when the dramatic stakes are already right there in the picture, just waiting for a bold stroke to bring them out.
Take the tale of "All Gold Canyon," which stars Tom Waits as an old prospector who meticulously searches for a gold pocket. Something happens to rupture the peace, and the prospector bellows at the camera, "You didn't hit nothin' important," saliva rocketing from his lips, his hair and face a manic mess. That's the most memorable few seconds of the film because it comes closest to real depth of emotion. But the Coens quickly move on, the prospector never to be heard from again. The best I can say about Buster Scruggs is that it seems as though the Coens picked their favorite actors and wrote them a part specifically tailored to their abilities.