Usually I’d argue that anthology films are kind of a waste of time and resources unless you’re in the mood for the cinematic equivalent of tapas instead of an actual meal, but, hell, it’s the Coens, it’s on Netflix, and I’d be a fool to not see it, considering the, I dunno, 14 or so truly great films they’ve made so far. It’s a reasonable bet to give them the benefit of the doubt, and it pays off most of the time.
Except when it doesn’t. But this is not one of those times. The fact that these stories are told in short story form, is the perfect delivery device for the overall package, because there’s no real connection between any of the stories, other than that people suck. It’s not the first time the Coens have ventured in the realm of the Western, but it’s the most recent, and probably the funniest. There is a certain mordent grimness as well, which befits the frontier setting, one which maybe implies man’s drive to ‘conquer’ the New World was an inherently deadly business.
Almost all the stories trade in death, in that death is either an element of the story, or the punchline to it, but not always. The last story, as far as I could tell, is entirely about death, with a number of people lead unawares to their final reward on a stagecoach, and yet they also argue about the nature of love, tedium, loneliness, the value of speaking the same language as someone you’ve shacked up with. All while the driver drives on.
The stories are bookended with images from a literal book being leafed through, as if these are all stories from the same book, by the same author, but really it’s mostly the Coens putting together some stories they thought up over the years (one of the stories is from Jack London, probably the best one, but who could tell) and making it look like there’s an overarching theme or connection at work.
There isn’t. Their only point is the same one they borrowed when they made No Country for Old Men, which is that there is no mercy, no divine grace, no power of prayer, no divine intercession on our behalf, and evil easily triumphs over good because it is way meaner and wants the prize more.
Again, except when it doesn’t. There is a wry approach at play here, where luck doesn’t really seem to go anyone’s way for too long, and misunderstandings lead to tragedy, or where venality wins out over virtue, but it’s not meant in a mean way, if that makes any sense, and it probably doesn’t.
The first story, which shares the title of the movie, is about a happy-go-lucky singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) who looks like and sounds like the clear embodiment of all that jerks used to love about cowboy movies. Not only that but, like Deadpool, or any number of other characters who talk directly to the audience, this jerk tells us all about how wonderful he is, through his particular song and dance routine. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s quite handy with a gun.