Coens go cowboy and straddle the line between stupid and clever in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

By Liam Lacey 

Rating: B-plus

Let’s say this for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-part Western anthology by Joel and Ethan Coen that will be released Friday on Netflix, or in one longish theatrical movie: It’s extremely watchable, packed with curios and contrasts and narrative twists, filled with the sincere and the ersatz, the stupid and the clever, the grotesque and the goofy. 

All of this, of course, is served up in an impeccable craft package, featuring Bruno Delonnel’s Heaven-lit cinematography of the Southwest United States and Carter Burwell’s swelling, melancholic cowboy music score. 

The Coens’ third Western feature after No Country for Old Men and True GritThe Ballad of Buster Scruggsis essentially a pastiche. Many elements are fancifully artificial, from the framing device of a book, with water-colour illustrations and dissolving text, to the inflated, verbose language, which sounds as though The Dude from The Big Lebowski did the script.  

Tim Blake Nelson is a singing cowboy in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Photo: Netflix)

Tim Blake Nelson is a singing cowboy in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Photo: Netflix)

The opening title story features a white-clad singing-gunslinger (Tim Blake Nelson) who’s a sort of sociopathic version of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, combining singing and gun-slinging.  As he rides into a small-town, he’s playing his guitar and singing The Sons of the Pioneers’ 1940s song, "Cool Water".  You might notice the guitar he carries bears the logo of Recording King, a popular mail-order instrument from the 1930s (recently revived as a vintage replica). 

These are markers of artifice, a reminder that the Coens aren’t interested in history;   They’re about the cornball world of horse opera movies and pulp fiction fatalism. And if you want to extract a philosophy out of that, good luck to you.  

Nelson’s character is a man of several pseudonyms (including The San Saba Songbird and The Misanthrope). And the episode sees him engaging in some over-the-top gun fights while doing a lot of direct-to-camera mugging. 

This is mostly a mixture of moderately clever whimsy and juvenile slapstick. (I try to resist blaming the Coens for their young male fans, who guffaw way too hard at every symmetrical bullet wound and blood geyser).  The tone grows slightly darker, though no more weighty, in the second story. Near Algodones features James Franco as a cowboy bank robber who finds himself, repeatedly,  at the business end of a noose.  

Much more resonant, and crueler, is the story Meal Ticket, starring Liam Neeson as an Irish drunk and impresario of a theatrical travelling show, who serves as the caregiver and manager of a young English actor known as Harrison, The Wingless Thrush (Harry Melling, Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter films). 

Harrison has no arms and legs and is strapped to a chair, where he recites passages from Shelley, the Bible, Shakespeare and Lincoln to increasingly smaller crowds. Then the impresario sees a chance to buy a clever performing chicken. There are lots of literary echoes here (especially of Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist) but the bite of the piece comes from the silent moments in the performances as both Melling and Neeson convey terrible things with their stricken stares. 

The high point is All Gold Canyon, the story of a prospector (musician, Tom Waits, channeling Walter Huston) ripping holes into the pristine mountain valley to find a motherlode of gold. Most of the speech is in the prospector’s monologues and his singing of his favourite song (Mother Machree, an Irish-American showtune not written until 1910). 

The simple presence of Waits, grumbling and rooting, and the idyllic valley, serves as a pleasant middle interlude, and wraps with a couple of predictable, though satisfying, twists. 

The longest,and most tonally varied segment (both cruel and tender) is The Gal Who Got Rattled, starring Zoe Kazan as a young woman whose brother has died, leaving her to continue alone and penniless on a wagon train trek to Oregon. 

Bleak prospects give way to potential hope when one of the bashful wagon train leaders (Bill Heck) makes a marriage proposal. But in the Coen’s capacious vocabulary, the words “happily ever after” rarely occur in the right order. The segment also features a Comanche attack, which follows the usual Hollywood template of looking more like a cowboy shooting gallery game than a credible battle. 

The final story, Mortal Remains is a well-executed if trite, Twilight Zone-like tale of five characters on a stage coach journey.  Tyne Daly plays a puritanical religious scold, who believes there are the righteous and the sinners; Saul Rubinek plays a louche French card player who believes each person is unique, and Chelcie Ross is an insufferably talkative trapper, who believes people are like ferrets, by which he means, hard to tell apart. 

The other two passengers (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O'Neill) claim they are bounty hunters, though they come across as knowing con men with a whiff of brimstone. In truth, the whole segment is so stuffed with portents, you half expect Rod Serling’s voice-over to suddenly intone, “Five squabbling passengers are on a journey to their destination, perhaps their final destination...”

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill. The Balllad of Buster Scruggs shows on Netflix and at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre.