Review: 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs'

The Coen Brothers go West once again in new Netflix film
Ambrose Bierce-like tales of the Old West populate the Coen Brothers' excellent new anthology film, 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.'

The Coen brothers' new anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, portrays the frontier as a place of death so sudden and terrible that the word "ironic" is too fancy for it. Here are demises as swift as a dropped anvil in a Road Runner cartoon.

As filmmakers, the Coens often create equal and opposite reaction to film classics, spinning off of ideas they're trying to top, honor or besmirch. (This tribute to Westerns starts with a common prestige-movie beginning of the old days: a hand opening a leather bound volume and turning the pages.) But the half-dozen tales found therein are closer to Ambrose Bierce than Louis L'Amour. One of the briefest, "Near Algodones" with James Franco as an unlucky bandit, seems to be a riff on "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."

The longest, "The Gal Who Got Rattled," has moments as sincere as their best film, True Grit; Charles Portis' novel gave the florid talents of the two brothers something solid to twine around, allowing their love of slapstick and archaic words to blossom. This tale opens at a boarding house where the boarders include an ultra-minor True Grit character, the half-dead old lady Grandma Turner. Alice (Zoe Kazan) spends her last night in civilization at this place before joining a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. Her companions are her useless brother and a yappy troublemaking terrier named President Pierce.

Kazan is sweetly appealing in a sunbonnet during a slow, cautious romance between her and trail boss Billy Knapp (Bill Heck, courtly and gallant—the kind of cowboy you buy movie tickets to see). He dallies with the idea that he could settle down with her in the Willamette Valley, but then a war party of Indians show up. The brutally staged skirmish is worthy of the Randolph Scott era in Westerns.

In another episode, the chummy white-clad Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) rides in, playing his guitar on horseback and warbling "Cool Water." This was a hit for the the Sons of the Pioneers—the same group whose "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" commenced The Big Lebowski. Buster shows us his wanted poster, which claims that an alias for this sunshiney rambler is "The Misanthrope." We find out how he earned the name after greasy tavern polecats urge him at gunpoint to play a Dead Man's Hand, aces and eights in spades.

"Things have a way of escalatin'..." he drawls. If Hail Caesar! seemed like inside baseball, the savage assault on the milk-drinking cowboys of yesterday delves even deeper into semi-forgotten movies.

The most disposable episode is "All Gold Canyon" with Tom Waits—decked out like Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre—coming into a blissful valley as pretty as a Disney nature film, which he tears up in search of the yellow dirt. The payoff to this one-man show isn't anything that couldn't be summed up by the old hymn: "Every prospect pleases and only man is vile."

Chronic wiseasses that the Coens are, they're capable of wrenching moments. The best of these tales, the tragic "Meal Ticket," was perhaps inspired by the famous scene in My Darling Clementine, where Alan Mowbray recited Hamlet in a rowdy Tombstone tavern. A tiny show wagon tours the high country, functioning as both freak show and edification. Painted with makeup, the crippled "Wingless Thrush" (a superb Harry Melling) ringingly declaims everything from Shakespeare sonnets to the Gettysburg Address to the wondering miners. Meanwhile the Impresario (Liam Neeson) collects the coins, and takes care of the fleshly necessities. More than just a grim joke on the killing grind of show business, this compact, beautifully made piece is as sad as La Strada.

Almost as high quality is the finale, a straight-out tale of terror: "The Mortal Remains." A party of five bounce down a dark road in a stagecoach: a smelly, talkative trapper (Chelcie Ross), a philosophizing Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and a haughty dame (Tyne Daly). Riding up top is a corpse sewn up in canvas, the property of the two remaining passengers: one a formidable Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), the other a twinkling-eyed dandy called Thigpen (Jonjo O'Neill, who is astonishing here, setting a claustrophobic mood that goes from hideo-comic to absolutely deadly).

Asked if he'd known the deceased well, Thigpen smiles: "Yes! At the end of his life!" Frontier humor always means the kind of joke on someone who'll either die or who'll wish they were dead.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
R; 132 Mins.
Netflix, Nov 16

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