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