Old West songbook

Coen brothers release anthology of gunslingers, prospectors and wagon trains on Netflix

Starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits and Zoe Kazan. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Netflix. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new film by the Coen Brothers, is a characteristically idiosyncratic western, or rather six westerns, all part of a diverse and spectacular set of tales presented in the form of an exceedingly offbeat movie anthology.

A wild and increasingly dark sort of humor makes itself felt right from the start, and if the opening tales tend toward half-crazed parody, the later ones gravitate toward tragicomedy of a more somber sort, but never really lose touch with the farcical lunacy of the earlier episodes.

The opening episode, which shares its title with the film, has a drawling, bawling Tim Blake Nelson playing a manic travesty version of the immaculately dressed and magically effective singing cowboys of long-ago matinee westerns. The overall result in this case is a kind of mock-lethal hilarity emanating from an exhilarating brew of song, scenery and outlandish gunplay.

In the second episode, “Near Algodones,” a handsome, unsmiling cowboy (James Franco) tries to rob a weirdly isolated bank in the desert and—more than once—finds himself with a noose around his neck. The bank’s clownishly resilient and elusive teller (Stephen Root) is one of the standouts among the film’s various secondary characters.

In the third episode, “All Gold Canyon” (based on the Jack London story of the same name), a wooly-looking prospector (Tom Waits) armed with a shovel and a sluice pan (and some snatches of song) tracks a “mother-lode” vein of gold in a majestically sylvan landscape. It’s a wonderful sight (the Old West version of Tom Waits included), even though the episode’s ironies seem a little too simplistic.

A blithe sort of brutality gets a coldly matter-of-fact treatment in the fourth episode, “Meal Ticket.” Liam Neeson plays a tattered wagon-show impresario who travels about with a lone actor named Harrison, the quadriplegic “Wingless Thrush,” who skillfully recites classic texts from the wagon’s make-shift stage. The episode seems to try for something like the bleakness of a Samuel Beckett drama, but the extraordinary Harry Melling’s genuinely haunting performance as Harrison is the one real accomplishment.

The fifth episode, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” just might be the best of the lot. It’s got the misadventures of a wagon train, a love story in tangled circumstances, Comanches on the warpath, and the unraveling partnership of a veteran pair of trail guides. It’s a compact and richly evocative little epic, with three standout characterizations—Zoe Kazan in the title role and Bill Heck and Grainger Hines as the two trail guides.

The final episode, “The Mortal Remains,” takes place mostly on a stagecoach with five very talkative passengers inside and a shrouded corpse and uncommunicative driver up top. The five include two gentlemanly looking “bounty hunters” (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill), a huffily moralistic lady (Tyne Daly), a somewhat professorial “Frenchman” (Saul Rubinek), and an exuberant and curmudgeonly mountain man (Chelcie Ross). Their destination is a mystery, but many of the troubles and concerns of the previous episodes are plainly part of the moral and emotional baggage they have with them.