Review: Coens shorts are sweet in 'Buster Scruggs'

Netflix title features six short films from the 'Fargo' filmmakers

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Tim Blake Nelson in "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs."

With "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," the Coen Brothers invite you to saddle up 'round the campfire for six short stories from the American frontier, all told with their signature acerbic wit and bite.  

It's a credit to the Coens that all of these stories could be expanded into full-length features. That's how rich and fulfilling their filmmaking is, even when told in short bites. And these characters, though we're only with them briefly, leave lasting impressions.

These six shorts, each roughly 20-30 minutes in length, are like bar tricks, one-offs that you can see the Coens sharing with a table of friends over drinks. It opens with the title short, the best of the bunch, which stars Tim Blake Nelson as an overly articulate gunslinger who turns his victims into fodder for singalongs. It's absurdist, uproarious fare, and we quickly shift gears into "Near Algodones," which stars James Franco as a bank robber who gets his comeuppance, escapes his fate and ends up with a noose around his neck anyway. Waiting to be hanged, he turns to the fella next to him, who's crying out for his dear life as he awaits his execution. "First time?" Franco's Cowboy asks, drolly. 

If they were all single joke tales, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" would wear out its welcome. But there's real soul in the man and nature tale "All Gold Canyon," with Tom Waits playing a prospector searching for gold, and "The Gal Who Got Rattled," with Zoe Kazan as a prospective bride heading to Oregon in a caravan.

"Buster Scruggs" is a Netflix title, and its nature makes for perfect bite-sized viewing on the streaming platform. Taken as a whole, it's smart, snappy filmmaking from the duo who, 30-plus years into their careers, are still revealing new tricks hidden up their sleeves.


'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs'


Rated R for some strong violence

Running time: 132 minutes 

On Netflix