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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.

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.

Understanding is critical

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