“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is bookended by two of the strangest vignettes of Joel and Ethan Coen’s careers; beyond that, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. The sibling directors’ Netflix-produced Western anthology, initially reported as a miniseries before landing on the fall calendar as a feature, feels like it’s stuck somewhere in between the two. It amounts to an intermittently funny, gorgeous, and patience-trying 130 minutes, but fans will find plenty of gems in this messy assemblage of Coen brothers motifs.
The Coens have channeled Western tropes across their decades-spanning careers, and “Buster Scruggs” plays a bit like liner notes. While they’ve only engaged the genre directly with “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men,” aspects of Western swagger percolate all the way back to “Blood Simple” — the harsh desert milieu, sweet harmonies juxtaposed with the merciless terrain, American dreams gone sour, and obsessive men who comically seal their own doom.
Much of that comes to bear in bite-sized pieces, resulting in a grab-bag of Coen brothers indulgences that drag aplenty but never lack inspiration. The sole linking device between the movie’s six stories is the recurring cutaway to a book, shot from the POV of an unseen reader, as a hand flips through pages as a rocker creaks gently offscreen — all of which makes the scattershot approach clear from the outset.
As a result, the Coens don’t commit to any kind of overarching link between the chapters upfront, and the first story sets the wacko bar in the heavens before bringing it down to earth. In “Misanthrope,” Tim Blake Nelson gives a phenomenal cartoonish performance as the titular Buster Scruggs, an outlaw wandering through a small town and strumming his guitar along the way. Buster’s a fourth-wall breaking Looney Tunes troublemaker come to life, speaking directly into the camera about his gunslinging antics and rolling into town shooting up a storm as he sings merry melodies to punctuate each grisly act of violence. As the camera shifts between various perspectives, including one from inside the guitar itself, the Coens seem to relish the exuberance of the genre, upping the ante to a glorious degree as the body count rises. Then comes an even more ludicrous finale, so singular in its inspired lunacy that it’s a shame the Coens didn’t simply make a feature-length Western musical.
Instead, they spin the dial, doodling their way through a sketch book of dissonant ideas. James Franco surfaces in the fleeting “Near Algodones” as an ill-fated bank robber who winds up in a clever slapstick conundrum involving a couple of horses and more than one noose. With the Fellini-like “Meal Ticket,” a grizzled Liam Neeson plays a traveling huckster who forces a young man with no arms or legs (Harry Melling, in a terrific, melancholic turn) to perform theater to rapt crowds. His delivery of “Ozymandius” has a striking lyricism all to its own, but it’s a slim, understated work barely given room to breathe.
Fortunately, the most satisfying chapter has all the space it needs: In “All Gold Canyon,” Tom Waits single-handedly carries this snapshot of a gold digger in the vast countryside mining a small stream on a quest to strike it rich. The story builds to a surprise twist midway through, with Waits’ frazzled face and tough demeanor emerging as one of the very best avatars of the Coens’ recurring fixations. The singer owns every frame, and it’s a joy to watch him mutter his way through a masterful chamber piece.
The meandering penultimate entry, “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” follows Zoe Kazan as an abandoned single woman on the Oregon trail who copes with a series of unexpected roadblocks. Kazan’s shy demeanor sets up a tragic climax, and on some level turns this entry into a spiritual sequel to “Meek’s Cutoff.” But the ham-fisted showdown with Native Americans marks the second occasion in which “Buster Scruggs” indulges in the same representational issues that have dogged the cowboys-and-Indians dynamic for decades; in saluting racially biased Westerns of yesteryear, the Coens seem more willing to spice up the genre with their own sensibilities than correct its stereotypes. Unfortunately, in 2018 this registers as lazy and weakens the movie as a whole (though, to be fair, the movie has few white characters with redeemable qualities).
Finally, “Buster Scruggs” circles back to the surreality of its opening bit with a macabre little dramedy set in the confines of a stagecoach. Recalling the opening segment of “The Hateful Eight,” this surreal and alluring sequence — entitled “Mortal Coil” — stars Martin McDonagh and Jonjo O’Neill as a pair of mysterious bounty hunters sitting across from three clueless travelers (including a spooked Tyne Daly) who gradually learn about the eerie circumstances surrounding their journey. It’s a bizarre, chatty snippet of gothic storytelling, loaded with the kind of magical realism that the Coens so often sneak in from unexpected places. There’s nothing quite like the odd delight of watching Gleeson sing a mournful tune in the blue hue of moonlight; he’s haunting and silly at once. Visually, the movie never ceases to play up the colorful possibilities of an expansive Western universe, as cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel treats every image as a new opportunity to enrich the strangeness on display. His work often outshines the Coens’ fractured script.
As the unseen reader finishes the book, “Buster Scruggs” leaves much to be desired, and little to justify its heft. Regardless of whether it was actually envisioned as a miniseries, it may have worked better in that context; as it stands, the sprawling collection provides a kind of cinematic liner notes to the Coens’ homegrown aesthetic. Their unique style has been so deeply ingrained in popular culture that it’s often taken for granted (or, with F/X’s “Fargo” series, transformed into pastiche). “Buster Scruggs” is a singular illustration of what makes the Coen formula so appealing, and a reminder of so many better examples.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. It premieres on Netflix November 16.