Joel and Ethan Coen originally planned this western anthology as a Netflix series, but it’s easy to understand why they chose to release it as a theatrical feature: the visuals are so entrancing that they won’t have their full impact even on the largest home screens. Like all omnibus films, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is uneven, but it exhibits the brothers’ quirky sense of humor throughout, as well as their undeniable filmmaking finesse.
The movie takes its title from the first of its six episodes, introduced—like all of them—by a title page from an old book of tall tales. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a cliché singing cowboy ambling happily across the desert toward a rough town. The white-clad, goofily grinning dude makes his way to the saloon, where he’s accosted by the ruffians who are regulars and proves himself as handy with his gun as he is with his guitar. But another cowboy (Willie Watson)—one whose musical facility lies elsewhere—appears for the inevitable showdown.
The second segment, “Near Algodones,” carries a “Twilight Zone” quality in its ironic twist ending. A gunfighter (James Franco) tries to rob a bank in the middle of nowhere, but the odd old teller (Stephen Root) is more than he can handle. Sentenced to be hanged, he’s saved by the intervention of a band of marauding Indians, and taken on by a cattleman passing by with his herd; but what seems to be a stroke of good fortune turns out to be the exact opposite
Up next is “Meal Ticket,” in which Liam Neeson plays a bargain-basement showman travelling around with his little wagon-stage, which he unpacks wherever there are enough folks to make up an audience that might cough up some tips. His attraction is The Artist (Henry Melling), an armless, legless fellow whose act consists of declaiming everything from Scripture and poetry to the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. As the audiences grow smaller, however, the impresario begins looking for a new star, and finds a most unlikely one.
The fourth episode is “All Gold Canyon,” set in a paradisiacal valley where an old prospector (Tom Waits) laboriously unearths a rich vein of the glistening wealth. Unfortunately a thief has been observing his work, and intends to profit from it.
“The Girl Who Got Rattled” stars Zoe Kazan as Alice, a demure young woman left alone when her brother dies as they travel west by wagon train. But the train’s scout, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), becomes enamored of her, and they plan to settle down together, even if Knapp’s departure might disappoint the wagon master Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines). In the end, a bunch of Indians intervene again, and all plans go awry.
The series closes with “The Mortal Remains,” about a stagecoach ride to a dark destination. The bickering passengers include the snooty wife of a preacher (Tyne Daly), a worldly Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and a verbose old trapper (Chelcie Ross). Accompanying them are a pair of self-styled bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill) with a body as their baggage.
Each of the half-dozen tales is a combination of snarky humor and dark foreboding, with death always lurking just around the corner as a constant. But unlike Seth MacFarlane, who promised us a million ways to die in the west and just delivered some dumb, clichéd farce, the Coens delve deeper into the grim reality of life and death on the range, and uncover—if not a vein of pure gold—some canny if typically cynical insights, ironically expressed and gorgeously realized in visual terms.
The cast fit themselves snugly into the compositions the brothers so elegantly draw with the aid of production designer Jess Gonchor, costumer Mary Zophres and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Nelson, Neeson, Waits and Kazan stand out in the ensemble, but among the others Ross is hilarious as a codger as addicted to the sound of his own voice as the pedant Joseph Finsbury played by Ralph Richardson was in “The Wrong Box,” and at the other end of the spectrum Melling, with his wistful blue eyes, exudes an authentically tragic dimension as the totally dependent Artist. Adding to the effect are Roderick Jaynes’ precisely calibrated editing and a rich score by Carter Burwell that interpolates familiar western tunes.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” may be a second-tier Coen brothers film, but their lesser effort easily surpass the best that most filmmakers can manage.