Too bad the title of the new multi-story Coen brothers film is taken from the first of its episodes. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has the ring of a cartoon spoof, and it’s a perfectly suitable title for the film’s first segment, a Western sendup so broad it reminds us that every Coen brothers film has a little Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner spinning around inside it.
But this movie, taken as a whole, is no spoof, nor a cartoon. Its first two sections are very funny, but gradually the project moves from comedy into something else, something kind of amazing. Exquisitely crafted and relentlessly bleak, Buster Scruggs is a glorious wagon train of dark mischief, a strangely entertaining autopsy on the human condition. Like Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, it pretends to be silly while it slips you the needle.
That first episode introduces us to Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson, from the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou), a pipsqueak gunslinger with a quick draw whose time in an Old West town is necessarily limited. He also sings. Of course. The next story places James Franco and Stephen Root in a funny one-joke premise that’s literally “gallows humor.” Things go grimmer with a tale about a theatrical trouper (Liam Neeson) traveling with his performer, a master thespian (the curious Harry Melling, from the Harry Potter world) who happens to lack arms and legs. Next, Tom Waits stars as a prospector (of the variety inevitably described as “grizzled”) digging his way to a gold strike, in a tale—adapted from a Jack London short story—less sarcastic than the others here.
There’s a wagon-train story, with Zoe Kazan as a forlorn traveler, Bill Heck as a lovelorn scout, and Grainger Hines as the trail boss. This episode’s bitter pill is a typical Coen concept: turn certain well-worn characters from the Western on their heads and put comedy where you expect sincerity and sour endings where you expect happy ones. The final yarn is a Twilight Zone number about a mysterious stagecoach ride, a jaunt that sews everything together with a morbid wink. The five actors in this piece are just right, from familiar faces of Brendan Gleeson and Tyne Daly to choice character actors Saul Rubinek and Chelcie Ross to the splendidly odd Jonjo O’Neill.
The movie has a very limited theatrical release, but you can watch it right now on Netflix, and it’s as though the Coens handed an exploding cigar to the cable channel: Buster Scruggs isn’t so much about spoofing the Western as declaring storytelling itself a deadly pastime. I don’t read reviews before I write my own, but I scanned some Rotten Tomatoes headlines and noticed the consensus, even among Coen fans, is that Buster Scruggs is “uneven,” the sort of crapshoot you expect with an anthology film. I disagree. Everything fits together in a commanding way: every piece of buckskin, every shaft of light falling across some dadburn varmint’s face, every carefully chosen actor (recognizable and otherwise). It’s like a beautifully embroidered needlework laid across a gravesite. Netflix and be chilled, because Buster Scruggs is a reminder that most Western ballads were about the way to dusty death.