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‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Is an Eerie, Slapstick Tune Indeed

Odd Ducks in the Old West, courtesy of the Coen brothers.

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Tom Waits prospects for gold.
  • Tom Waits prospects for gold.

A comical-but-deadly gunfighter in a gaudy dude-ranch cowboy outfit. A bumbling bank robber whose lynching is interrupted. A quadruple amputee storyteller traveling from town to town in a wagon. A lone prospector who talks to the earth while digging for gold. Mishaps in a wagon train crossing the plains. A stagecoach full of colorful but scatter-brained characters.

Ethan and Joel Coen evidently had so much fun remaking True Grit, they decided to create a western TV mini-series. The concept took a different path when the Coens converted it to a stand-alone feature film, a six-part anthology of suitably eccentric western short stories named after the lead character in the first episode. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will delight fans of the Coens’ whimsical streak with its loopy tales of odd ducks in the Old West. Others may wonder if the Coens’ vision of Old Weird America is really worth a revisit.

All six episodes are more or less guilty of narrative over-thinking, but each one has its own peculiar charm, with the peculiarity front and center. The most curious of the lot is “Meal Ticket,” in which an armless and legless “thespian and orator” named Professor Harrison (Harry Melling), aided by his impresario (Liam Neeson), journeys by wagon to the most remote communities. There, seated on a pedestal, he entertains folks with recitations of such poems as Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” always concluding with a stirring rendition of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” And then the boss passes the hat.

The western settings for these and the other vignettes — saloons, bordellos, banks, and various outdoor locations, with production design by Jess Gonchor and art direction by Steve Christensen and Chris Farmer — are among the most splendid of 2018.

The most fleshed-out of the tales is “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the misadventures of a brother-sister pair of greenhorn settlers (Zoe Kazan and Jefferson Mays) and an intrepid trail boss (Bill Heck) on their covered wagon trek to Oregon. As in True Grit, survival on the frontier is shown to largely be a matter of dumb luck. In that respect, Ballad borrows some of the same Rube Goldberg-style mechanisms as the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing, in which life-or-death situations revolve around various traps and pratfalls. The meanest and most violent characters can get tripped up by ordinary accidents, and so can naïve innocents.

The Coens’ dialogue is presented in authentic-sounding 19th-century American English, complete with elevated metaphors and biblical references. We get an earful of that in the stagecoach segment, “The Mortal Remains,” in which a group of talkative characters no doubt lifted from John Ford’s Stagecoach interact with each other on
the rocky road to Fort Morgan, Colo. There’s a backwoods trapper (Chelcie Ross), a self-consciously moralistic lady (Tyne Daly), an Irish bounty hunter (Brendan Gleeson), an Englishman (Jonjo O’ Neill), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and the title gent, a corpse wrapped in linen, riding on the coach’s luggage rack. Sure enough, they begin to argue.

Ballad’s overall tone is consistent with that of most of the Coens’ work — whimsical pessimism leavened with the expectation of luck, good or bad. Case in point: the solitary prospector (Tom Waits, in one of the film’s finest performances) who digs up a wide swath of a magnificent valley’s stream bed in “All Gold Canyon,” while singing “Mother Machree” in Waits’ trademark gravelly growl.

For good fortune, there’s nothing to compare to Tim Blake Nelson in the movie’s title role as the simultaneously silly and dangerous Scruggs. Just remember that anyone’s luck can change. For that, consider the plight of
holdup man James Franco in “Near Algodones.” Coen fans who can never get enough of the antics of Anton Chigurh, Llewyn Davis, The Dude, and Marge Gunderson will recognize the territory. The Ballad
of Buster Scruggs
may be a reworking of a longtime story project with Netflix as its final destination, but its commitment to the Coen brothers’ long view of American history, as well as its craftsmanship, are pure gold. Just make sure you’re wearing your slapstick-proof chaps, podner.

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