The Coens' latest, released straight to Netflix, is a six-part anthology of Western stories. It was reportedly originally slated to be a full series, later reduced to film length, and it does unfortunately show at times, with a couple of the tales feeling like ideas that never went anywhere. It's also full of the things it's easy to criticise the Coens for: caricatures rather than characters, self-satisfied pastiche and so on.
Then again, it's got plenty of what makes them great: handsome and stylish photography, sparkling dialogue and offbeat wit, and a cast of big names and where've-I-seen-him-before character actors all having a splendid time and ensuring the audience does too.
The titular first story has Tim Blake Nelson owning the screen as a crooning dandy gunslinger, but it's also the most frustratingly underdeveloped of the six stories. The second is one of the directors' beloved shaggy dog tales, with James Franco as a luckless outlaw, but it's brief, jokey and probably the weakest moment. Things start getting a bit more serious and thought-out in part three, with Liam Neeson's impresario travelling together with a limbless actor, played by someone British called Harry Melling, who does in real life have arms and legs and who seems previously best-known for a small recurring role in the Harry Potter series. Melling is surprisingly good but - and this happens a lot with the Coens - the story spends a lot of time involving your emotions and setting things up only to let you down with a damp squib of an ending.
The two centrepieces are strongest: Tom Waits is excellent in a lonely performance as a determined prospector stumbling across a gorgeous valley, while Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck are a touching pair on a wagon trail west in what is easily the most powerful and genuine segment.
We finish with an underpowered, talky stagecoach ride with five mismatched passengers, though the acting is again uniformly excellent - let's pick out Jonjo O'Neill if we must single out an individual - and does save it from leaving a bad taste.
There is no doubting the Coens' love of Westerns and they do bring something new and personal to the genre with these stories, but at the same time the ideas often seem half-sketched and despite the great cast and some good lines, the riotous surrealism of their best work is missing. Instead, it's the most honest and straight stories, those of Waits and Kazan, that make the most impression.