What at first glance looks like a goofball experiment from the Coens turns into their most open rumination on death. Their fondness for Flannery O'Connor-esque moralism, with its foregrounding of the grotesque and the blunt intrusion of chaos and death, has of course always lacked the Catholic note of grace that gave O'Connor's work at least some degree of salvation. As such, the Coens' films tend to feel irresolute, morally and emotionally if not narratively. The anthology format of Buster Scruggs makes for completely self-contained narratives, but their themes and lasting moods are harder to suss out for the confusion that sweeps through the characters' confrontations with mortality. Be it a hapless robber who finds himself in a meeting with the fate he cannot escape or the impresario of a limbless actor who suddenly sees a much cheaper alternative for entertainment, the characters either receive or impart death with ambiguity.
The Coens also offer up their clearest statements yet on their worldview and concept of an afterlife. The first segment, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" with its wild lurches from cornpone humor into shocking ultraviolence, is perhaps most troubling for its conclusion, in which our blithely nihilistic protagonist floats away to heaven, surely the last place he should be. Likewise, "The Girl Who Got Rattled" offers a beautiful, concise conversation that lays out the Coens' perspective of the material world, only for the belief in the unreliability of the observable, tactile world for the truth to be rendered through blind Protestant faith in a better afterlife to tragic ends.
Elsewhere, the filmmakers nail their tragicomic ethos with sharply observed caricatures. "All Gold Canyon" compresses The Treasure of the Sierra Madre into an ironically sunny idyll that makes the casual destruction of the verdant dale with hastily dug prospector holes all the more egregious an impact on the environment. Then there's "Meal Ticket," which inverts the awe of the Shakespeare scene in My Darling Clementine by suggesting the farce of appealing with art to those more preoccupied with mere survival. The shot of Melling double-taking at Neeson's hat coming back empty and pausing his mellifluous monologue is all of the comedy and despair of "Inside Llewyn Davis" in but a few seconds. I'm going to give "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" an 8 out of 10.