Some of the gags are a little too obvious – there’s a religious skit that’s a little too Life of Brian, a director whose alliterative name is mined for all it’s worth, and a well-executed climactic speech with a just-too predictable punchline. But those are nitpicks, anal nitpicks at that. The Coen Brothers are masters of comic craftsmanship, and though deconstructing it would be time-consuming, I can reduce how much pleasure you’ll get out of their approach to whether you find lines like “a mirthless chuckle” irrepressibly amusing, or a laughless non-starter. But they are lucid storytellers as well. On paper, a metaphor that likens the light of God – from which all that is righteous comes, to the light of the projection unit – from which all of cinema comes, looks unpalatable. On screen, the pair have a gift of craft that could convert the dead. The metaphor not only lands, it reconstitutes a thoroughly entertaining series of set-pieces into a moving whole. Rarely has “love of the movies” – so often used to give free passes to insufferable self-indulgence (Quentin, achem) – been used with such restraint to do the medium justice.
If the entire film had proceeded as the Dick Van Dyke Chim Marty Robbins Chiminey Western of its first anthology, I would have proceeded to smash the screen I was watching it on. Thankfully, that proved to be the most annoying part of it. What followed were a series of sweet but increasingly doomed vignettes, and once the memory of the opener had faded, I was slowly sucked into its faintly fantastical but violently real frontier vision – by the end I felt completely won over. Yet when I looked back at them, these six fragments seemed underwhelming – individually only one of them convinced me totally, one was a dud, one a set-up for a great punchline, while the rest spun their tales, sometimes funny, often sad. For once, however, the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Though initially appearing scattershot and inconsequential – unlike the vacuous pornographic violence of Quentin Tarantino it resembles at face-value, Buster‘s murderous chaos is rendered meaningful by the heart imbued in its characters – its sting in the tail fairy tales building off of each other, revealing their shared secrets of a capricious world. Not scattershot, but calculated. The Brothers Grimm go out West.