Like Hail, Caesar!, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a movie about movies. Hail, Caesar! took the tropes of the old-fashioned studio pictures and turned them into an interconnected backlot pastiche of cinematic styles. You had composites of real-life figures and homages to bygone genres, all playing out on a kooky, scale-model version of Hollywood. I still feel like that movie would have benefited from being a series rather than a feature—the world the Coen brothers built was bigger and richer than the runtime.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which had its North American premiere at the 2018 New York Film Festival, gets around some of these problems by embracing the anthology form. The six short films that comprise the movie are discrete, with no attempt to interconnect them. Each short inhabits a specific western subgenre, creating these self-contained, visually and verbally distinct cinematic worlds for each story to play out. There’s a Gene Autry singin’ cowboy story that embraces and subverts that form. There’s a John Ford-style wagon train epic about the clash between frontier life and domesticity. There’s even a short that’s a little like Robert Altman’s classic revisionist western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, with the same icy, transactional notions about relationships.
Your enjoyment of Buster Scruggs will depend entirely on your love and knowledge of westerns.