Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen originally wanted to make “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” their whimsically grotesque take on the Western genre, a six-part series of hour-long episodes for TV, but they decided to edit each hour down to 20 to 30 minutes and fuse the episodes into a single feature. At the end of its theatrical run, it will be shown on Netflix.
The first story, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” concerns a grinning, singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) dressed in white who shoots down every varmint dumb enough to challenge him and doesn’t mind gloating about it. Next comes “Near Algodones,” a dark tale starring James Franco as a luckless bank robber who always ends up with a noose around his neck. After that, Liam Neeson stars in “Meal Ticket” as a traveling showman drifting from town to town with a limbless orator (Harry Melling with arms and legs digitally erased) who recites Shakespeare to uncomprehending but curious audiences. Next is “All Gold Canyon,” a tour de force for Tom Waits as a grizzled prospector literally kept alive by his desire for gold. “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the longest and best story, stars Zoe Kazan as a young frontier woman who joins a wagon train to Oregon and faces all kinds of terror, hardship and misfortune. In the sixth and final story, “The Mortal Remains,” stagecoach riders Brendan Gleeson and Tyne Daly find their destiny at a mysterious, fog-shrouded post-Civil War mansion.
The six stories, relatively insubstantial in terms of plot and character (except for “The Gal Who Got Rattled”) depend almost entirely on style to keep them from becoming excessively absurd or gross. Style allows the Coens to maintain traditional Western themes of open options, greed, revenge, the gunslinger and brutal frontier life, to create warped humor without descending into farce, and to present it all with charm and elegance.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a remarkable example of the Coen brothers’ style of comedy — a poker-faced, oddly charming treatment of bizarre and perverse premises. “Meal Ticket” illustrates this best, with Neeson watching audiences at his show get increasingly thinner as the novelty of his armless, legless performer wanes. He tries a “psychic” chicken that pecks at lighted buttons to answer questions and it turns out to be a hit. But what to do with his former star? In successive shots, we see his trailer stop at the edge of a cliff and then roll slowly into the wilderness. The limbless man and his belongings are gone. The chicken remains.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is also typical of the Coens in the way it uses misleadingly serene or ordered appearances. Danger awaits the prospector even in his golden, sun-drenched valley. The bank robber’s skills are tested by a madman charging at him in makeshift armor. The young woman’s journey to Oregon ends tragically through a combination of fear and misunderstanding. And a routine stagecoach ride lovingly yet sorrowfully evokes another Western theme: The death of the American frontier.