‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’: The Coen brothers go west in 6 diverse ways

SHARE ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’: The Coen brothers go west in 6 diverse ways
the_ballad_of_buster_scruggs_05_e1542382701416.jpeg

Liam Neeson plays an impresario in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” | Netflix

You’ve probably heard some version of the parable about blind men touching different parts of an elephant.

The man who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a snake. The man touching the elephant’s side says the animal resembles a wall. The man running his hands over an ear believes the elephant is like a fan.

If six people walked into a screening of the Coen brothers’ Western anthology “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” at six different times, they too would come away with vastly contrasting impressions.

(Sidebar: Please enter any and all movies before they start.)

Our first story stars the wonderfully askew Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, a pleasant, guitar-strumming dandy with “a pleasing baritone” (as he puts it in a direct-to-camera monologue), who also happens to be the most feared outlaw gunslinger in all the land.

After a darkly hilarious musical number, the Buster story loses steam in its goofy closing moments — but that’s OK, it’s time to move on to the next chapter!

In “Near Algodones,” James Franco plays a hapless scoundrel cowboy who finds himself with a noose around his neck — twice.

On the first occasion, through circumstances best left for you to enjoy, the cowboy is alone, atop his horse, with the noose around his neck. But he’s still alive! How to work himself free?

In an inspired bit of physical comedy, the horse grazes and inches farther and farther away, oblivious (because he’s a horse) to the noose tightening around the cowboy’s neck. Eventually the rope is stretched to the point where … well. You’ll see.

Just when we think we’re in for a series of predominantly comedic adventures, here comes the third entry: the bleak and brutal and profoundly tragic “Meal Ticket.” Liam Neeson plays a world-weary, traveling impresario with but one act to promote: an armless and legless artist (Harry Melling) who recites passages from the Bible and Shakespeare and the Gettysburg Address, and, most memorably, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Melling’s work as the artist is poetic.

Next up is the beautifully photographed, almost existential “All Gold Canyon,” with Tom Waits killing as a crazy-ass old prospector with an appreciation for irony and karma, followed by “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” a wagon train adventure with outstanding work from Zoe Kazan as a young woman who finds herself in dire circumstances; Bill Heck as a handsome and noble leading man straight out of a 1950s Western and, in my favorite performance in any chapter of the anthology, Grainger Hines as the crusty wagon leader.

We close with “The Mortal Remains,” set mostly inside a stagecoach carrying a couple of bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill), among other intriguing characters. (Kinda hard NOT to reference “The Hateful Eight,” right?)

It’s not the strongest entry in the anthology, but it’s probably the one best suited to closing out the entire book.

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’

★★★1⁄2

Netflix presents a film written and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. Rated R (for some strong violence). Running time: 133 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters and on Netflix.

The Latest
The move should help a team that’s been hit with plenty of injuries this season.
After three road games to start the season in Colorado (Oct. 12), Vegas (Oct. 13) and San Jose (Oct. 15), the Hawks’ home opener will be Oct. 21 against the Red Wings.
Today’s update is a 5-minute read that will brief you on the day’s biggest stories.
Vallas’ second-quarter fundraising report includes six-figure contributions from some heavy-hitters.
Robert Crimo III showed little emotion as a prosecutor read the names of the dead and asked that he held without bail. The judge agreed.