Saddle up for a rowdy, rip-snorting, hilarity-and-hellfire western full of riding, fighting, hanging, shooting, gold prospecting and bloody massacres — plus silly songs, a limbless poet, cowboy love rituals and philosophical musings about the inevitability of dying. Yes, it’s all in one movie. Who does things like that?
Try Joel and Ethan Coen, those filmmaking brothers from the dusty plains of suburban Minnesota who are famously fearless about moseying down new paths. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is like no horse opera you’ve ever seen — imagine Blazing Saddles as directed by Ingmar Bergman. In Hollywood, they call this kind of cinematic leap of faith a hard sell. And it is hard to imagine studio suits lining up to release an anthology oater in six non-connecting parts, with no big box-office prospects and no overriding theme except for the omnipresence of sudden death. Luckily, the brothers have found a friend in Netflix, who are opening the wickedly wonky Western in a few theaters followed by a debut on its streaming service. See this cinematic orphan in a storm however and whenever you can, and prepare to be intrigued, enthralled and maybe even infuriated. There’s not a Coen freak who would have it any other way.
Buster begins with Buster himself, a singing cowboy played by a grinning, gotta-love-him Tim Blake Nelson. Appearances, however, are deceiving. This frontier troubadour seems benign enough riding through those gorgeous Monument Valley vistas from countless John Ford films; he somehow manages to stay on his horse while strumming his guitar, warbling “Cool, Cool Water” and wearing the sort of pristine white suit that might get a feller shot. John Wayne, he is not.
What he is, however, is a bit of a psycho killer. This becomes clear when Buster enters an outlaw bar where no one will serve him whiskey or let him play poker unmolested. That’s when the shooting starts. Varmints take bullets smack in the forehead as the Coens lay on the carnage. (The R rating is no joke.) A poster, labeling our antihero a misanthrope, announces that Buster is wanted dead or alive. The writer-directors love toying with language, the formality and foolishness of it as a means of communication. And they’re at their playful, potent best here, winning a deserved Best Screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival.
In the next segment, “Near Algodones” — the Coens introduce each chapter by turning the pages of an illustrated book — James Franco takes the lead as a bank robber about to be hanged. Circumstances conspire to keep the robber’s horse moving away from the noose. The Coens play comical variations on that joke, one which threatens to run out of juice until we’re onto the next adventure.
It’s a weird one, entitled “Meal Ticket,” in which a freakshow huckster (Liam Neeson, of all people) tries to find customers who will pay up to see his star — and only — attraction, an armless and legless orator known as the Artist. As played by the mellifluous-voiced Henry Melling (Dudley Dursley in Harry Potter), this reciter of plays and poetry mesmerizes his relatively small frontier audiences by reading Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and the Declaration of Independence. His handler, meanwhile, can barely speak to him; the isolation begins to wreak havoc with both of their mindsets. The Coens make the sense of exploitation palpable, along with a creeping menace that contrasts with the comic tone of the previous segments, in which death can be seen as a relief as well as a shock.
Such crushing loneliness is underlined in the next chapter, “All Gold Canyon,” which features an outstanding Tom Waits as a prospector panning for gold in a remote landscape he doesn’t seem to mind — until his soliditude is unexpectedly shattered. It’s here that the Coens dig further and deepen what it means to just survive in the West when greed trumps social interaction at every turn.
In the penultimate chapter, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the Coens turn expansive and build a story that could have profitably been expanded to feature length. In this story of an Oregon-bound wagon train trying to fulfill its manifest destiny on an unforgiving prairie, the brothers and their painterly cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel take their time to let us live with their characters even as marauding Comanches threaten to shorten everyone’s existence. Zoe Kazan is heartbreaking good as a woman heading westward solo (her brother is swiftly dispatched), hoping that marriage will be part of her final destination. She falls under the protection of wagonmaster Billy Knapp, played with strength, sexiness and an aching tenderness by Bill Heck. The Coens have never been ones to let sentiment intrude on the harsh reality of their tales, especially this one. Even a cute dog is an annoying yapper. But the segment suggests the possibilities of life that seldom come to fruition.
And then comes “The Mortal Remains,” with the Grim Reaper taking center stage as three stagecoach passengers — a chatterbox animal trapper (Chelcie Ross), a elitist Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and a soldier’s demanding wife (Tyne Daly) — refuse to accept the finality of their journey. Not even their guides, played Brendan Gleeson and a mischievous Jonjo O’Neill, and some serious symbolism can convince them. It’s a heavy-handed if inevitable finale for a film that began with such a light touch. But the Coens know how to suck you in before they suck you under. And the gallows humor of their fatalistic Ballad allows the filmmakers to do what they do best: laugh in the face of death.