“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is haunting and hilarious, goofy and grim, bloody and beautiful. Or, in other words, pure Coen Brothers.
The film, now streaming on Netflix, was originally intended to be an episodic series — at least that’s what was said when it began filming in western Nebraska last year.
But those episodes have been combined into what’s being called an anthology western, framed as chapters in an old, leather-bound book with pages turning to illustrations, then a title to introduce each segment.
The Coens, since their debut with “Blood Simple” back in 1984, have proven they know their way around the western, be it classic with their remake of “True Grit” or contemporary with the Oscar winner “No Country for Old Men.”
Here the duo — who produce, write, direct and, under a pseudonym, edit their films — are messing with classic Old West tropes. That begins with the titular tale of a singing cowboy gunslinger, played by Tim Blake Nelson.
Then comes a doomed bank robber (James Franco) who manages to survive a hanging, a look at a traveling show, with Liam Neeson as the impresario who is exploiting an armless and legless performer, and a prospector carefully digging for gold — a great performance from Tom Waits.
The fifth episode, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” is the piece of “Buster Scruggs” that was filmed near Scottsbluff. It’s a wagon train story about a young woman, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), who is being transported to Oregon by her brother, who plans to marry her off to a rich man. He dies on the trail, and Alice is befriended by Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), one of the train’s trail bosses.
I’m not going to reveal much else about the episode, except that it fits with the dark tone of the rest of the picture. Suffice it to say that nobody in the movie lives happily ever after.
As for Nebraska, it looks great — a vast, dusty expanse with faraway bluffs being traversed by a classic wagon train.
The final installment, titled “The Mortal Remains,” is a stagecoach tale with Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly and Saul Rubinek among the five passengers talking inside the stage on the way to Fort Morgan. Again, not giving much away, but this one’s by far the most haunting of the lot.
Less overt than “Hail! Caesar,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is, like the Coens’ last picture, a movie about the movies. The tropes they explore come straight out of old horse operas, the dialogue is formal, wordy and probably wouldn’t have been spoken in the 1800s, and the cinematography and swelling, string-rich score evoke classic westerns.
There’s been some criticism of the picture along the lines of, “Buster Scruggs so white, Buster Scruggs so male, Buster Scruggs so violent" — and it is indeed all three. That comes directly from the material that inspired the filmmakers, which was, white, male and violent. All of the above are effectively and pointedly exaggerated by the Coens.
I’ve also heard some carping about “Buster Scruggs” being minor Coen Brothers, the same shot taken at “Hail! Caesar.” In fact, it’s the opposite, a demonstration that the duo can make short stories that are wonderfully weird, kind of troubling and oddly funny as effectively as full-length features.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is getting some Oscar buzz and could land a nomination among the 10 films that will be considered for best picture. I know one thing: It’s going to be on my best of the year list in about a month, and I’ll be watching at least three of the segments again.