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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen brothers’ latest, an anthology about the brutality of the Old West, is in theaters and streaming on Netflix.

Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Metacritic score: 80

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a return to the Old West for Joel and Ethan Coen, who’ve traveled there before for two of their best films, No Country for Old Men and True Grit. It’s a trope-heavy sextet — six short films strung together, without any obvious connections between them except a kind of dream logic.

The result is an episodic, dark-hearted romp through a series of stories about outlaws, gold diggers, robbers, pioneers, and mysterious strangers. Thematically, all six are loosely linked by a sense of how absurd death can be, how unfair and irreverent and sometimes even funny it is.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t a typical ballad, in that it doesn’t construct a single, continuous narrative, but these connections nonetheless give it the feel of a murder ballad. It’s not the tale of a single murder — more of a pile of them — but as the film’s individual pieces and parts accrue meaning, the culprits of its stories emerge: chance, human cruelty, and the unfeeling universe. In other words, it’s a Coen brothers movie, and one that, thanks to its fine comic timing and steady directorial hand, could net them attention this awards season.

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