"Ballad of Buster Scruggs" sings inconsistent but fine tune


“Ever hear the story of the Midnight Caller?”

This is what one stranger asks of a terrified trio across from him in a stagecoach in the final act of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” The last vignette, “The Mortal Remains,” reminds one of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” in terms of its quick dialogue and single setting that somehow keeps up the suspense as two bounty hunters gleefully converse with an unkempt trapper, a Frenchman and a Christian woman.

This last vignette is one of the high points in the newest release from the Coen brothers – Joel and Ethan. With this being their first foray in streaming as “Buster Scruggs” is available on Netflix, the Coens’ 18th directorial feature does things a bit different.

An anthology of six short stories make up the film with all of them set up in the Old West, covering everything from wagon trains to prospecting, gunfights to magic chickens and everything in between.

The Coens have released some of the best films of all time so it is a bit unfair that “Buster Scruggs,” an otherwise fine and ambitious film for most directors, is just so-so for them. Some moments, with the fifth story “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” are the absolute high point, while the Liam Neeson segment “Meal Ticket” is the lowest. But overall it is a fine entry in a stellar career for the two.

The lone solace one can take is that as the Coens continue this deal with Netflix, it gives them more room to flesh out characters. The lone downside of an anthology is things feel a bit rushed going from chapter to chapter, as was the Coens’ last theatrical release in “Hail, Caesar!” as I could have done with more instead of less.

With a strong start in “Buster Scruggs,” which kind of feels like the Coens clearing a checklist of items before getting back to their next big movies, one can hope that they will get back to their traditional fare soon.

What I liked:

• In the titular vignette, Tim Blake Nelson plays Buster, who speaks so fast and with such a large vocabulary, it would make “Raising Arizona” blush. Nelson is a singing cowboy using his pipes that he showed off in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” as he regales the viewer in tales of his heroics. However, we eventually see that while Buster is charming, some Of his deeds seem a bit more sadistic than one would gather from his appearance. It is a good setup for a movie full of twists.

• In the Tom Waits’ starring “All Gold Canyon,” the veteran actor plays a prospector who diligently works to find gold near a river in a beautiful valley. A kind man, he respects the nature enough to let an owl keep most of her eggs because he feels sorry. Once he finds “Mr. Pocket” and a giant gold vein, the story becomes one of trying to survive  that has a heartwarming ending for a man you can’t help but root for.

• As I mentioned before, the Zoe Kazan-helmed “Gal Who Got Rattled” is the ultimate showcase in this anthology as it looks and feels and sounds like a Coen brother film in the likes of “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men.” Kazan’s Alice gains her confidence with the help of the charming Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) and unexpected theatrics of a gruff Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines). Buckle in for the end of this one, because it will defy your expectations.

• The final “Mortal Remains” thrives on its dialogue as well as the glee-like fun Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill have as the bounty hunters. The two toy with the strangers in the carriage, creating a sense of dread that the film ends with and like “Hail, Caesar!” leaves you wanting more. Also a quick note: the pages shown at the beginning of each chapter have exquisite writing that just makes you want the movie in book form.

What I didn’t like:

• Neeson does a bang-up job as the unnamed impresario whose traveling act is to have the armless, legless wonder of Harrison recite poetry and Abraham Lincoln. However, I think this story fell the most flat as it tries to end as a dark comedy, but overall feels plodding and drab. Fun note, the man who plays Harrison (Harry Melling) was Dudley Dursley in the “Harry Potter” films.

• The James Franco piece “Near Algodones” has some of the best shots and editing of the film, but it is too short to become attached to anyone. Stephen Root as the bank teller “Panshot” is hilarious, and Franco does sense the irony in the tragic ending, but the overall shortness of the vignette impedes the payoff.

Reason to watch:

Any Coen Brothers fan would like the movie, and plus it being free on Netflix is reason enough. I would recommend using subtitles because the Coens get a little full of themselves with the snappy dialogue at points.

Rating: R for strong violence.

My score: 80/100

Jordan Bishop is a member of the Stillwater News Press’ weekly movie podcast “Reel Talk” and can be reached at jbishop@stwnewspress.com.

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