‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’
Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan
Playing at The Landmark at 57 West and begins streaming on Netflix starting Nov. 16
The Coens Brothers’ career-spanning devotion to the Western in its many different forms continues with "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," an anthology movie originally conceived as a limited series for Netflix.
In the fashion of every other film Joel and Ethan Coen have made, it stands proudly on its own, both from Coen cousins such as "True Grit" and "No Country for Old Men" and, well, period.
Playing in theaters beginning Thursday before premiering on Netflix on Nov. 16, this is a collection of stories crafted with varying tones and styles, structured as if they were coming to life from the pages of a dusty old book. If there were nothing else to be said for the movie, this much is definitively true: There is nothing else like it.
That’s not necessarily the same as recommending it, exactly, and while every movie by the Coens is fundamentally worth seeing because of the consistent originality of their collective vision, they face the significant obstacle of needing to create six short films that hold their own on an individual level and amount to something larger that leaves an impact.
This rumination on classic genre archetypes features tales that range from the unequivocal highlight, the opening chapter starring Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs, a singing cowboy and legendary marksman, to others that simply do not possess the same level of crisp, engaging storytelling.
The beginning sequence is a masterpiece in miniature of dark comedy, in which Nelson, a frequent Coen collaborator, addresses the camera, happily sings a ballad and another slapstick ditty and spends the rest of his time killing pretty much everyone in sight. It is funny and defiantly weird while happily perfecting a hybrid of two familiar Western figures that’s so memorable you wish he’d stick around.
Alas, that is not to be, and the bar is raised so high that it’s simply impossible to match. Only the Gothic horrors of "Meal Ticket," the third chapter, come close to replicating the creativity and intelligence of Buster’s story. Here, Liam Neeson’s Impresario runs a traveling sideshow featuring Harry Melling (whose character is called, only, Artist) as a man with no arms or legs and a remarkable gift for monologues, from Shakespeare to Abraham Lincoln.
It’s the sort of impressionistic pastiche, the tweaking of iconic Americana, that defines so much of the Coens’ best work. The other chapters have their moments — really, one can never go wrong watching Tom Waits mining for gold, for example. If they’re linked by the filmmakers’ sense of the ephemeral nature of life in the West, they also suffer from their stories being too thin for this format.