Ever since Joel and Ethan Coen burst into the film world’s consciousness with the neo-noir thriller “Blood Simple” in 1984, they’ve put their own unique spin on nearly every genre imaginable.
Their biggest box office hit by far was their remake of the John Wayne cowboy classic “True Grit,” and they’ve returned to the Old West for their latest, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which debuts in select theaters on Friday, and will be streaming on Netflix.
The move represents another major step in Netflix’s attempts to compete in the Academy Awards, which require at least a limited run in Los Angeles and New York theaters in order to be eligible. “Scruggs” is an intriguing choice for Netflix to stake its claim — the sweeping landscapes and lush musical score cry out for a big-screen viewing, while the performances and stories maintain the intimate quality of an in-home movie night.
The film is an anthology of six short tales, each featuring a different cast, that are richly entertaining, and together add up to a collective powerhouse result. The feel is most closely akin to “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” with its episodic structure based on Homer’s classic epic “The Odyssey,” within the overarching story.
Each story is a chapter in a book called “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” The first tale follows the titular singing cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) as he tells his life story directly to the viewer and bursts into improbably joyful song every time he has to kill a man, which is often.
Nelson’s goofy charms evince a cornpone Pee-wee Herman, and his silly singing between numerous gunfights hearkens back to his turn as part of a singing trio of convicts in the Coen classic “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”
But when he is surprisingly shot dead in a duel, even after establishing himself as an ace singing shooter, it’s suddenly clear that is a movie that will keep viewers on their toes.
The other tales follow James Franco in “Near Algodones” as a bank robber who keeps finding himself dangling from a noose and struggling to survive and Liam Neeson in “Meal Ticket” as a traveling caretaker who is slowly growing tired of the armless, legless actor he assists on a failing tour performing Shakespeare monologues. Cult classic singing legend Tom Waits delivers the film’s most strangely magnetic performance in “All Gold Canyon” as a grizzled prospector who digs an endless series of holes searching for gold, only to find a gun in his back when he strikes the motherlode.
But the tour de force tale is the fifth, featuring Zoe Kazan in “The Gal Who Got Rattled” as a young and virtuous woman traveling to the West with her brother in a wagon train, hoping to enter an arranged marriage that will take care of her every need. But when her brother dies of tuberculosis, she begins a sweet business relationship with the caravan’s co-leader until yet another stunning tragedy hits.
The final tale, “The Mortal Remains,” serves up the Coen brothers at their darkest, with a bleakly comic depiction two bounty hunters transporting the the body of their latest quarry, tied to the roof of their stagecoach. As the overnight ride wends its way through a spooky desert night, the tone is almost that of a Stephen King horror story without over-the-top shock.
On the one hand, dishing out six different tales makes it hard to be deeply engaged in any one of them, except for perhaps Kazan’s. On the other, there is a fresh appeal in the anthology format in a streaming atmosphere, as viewers who are not drawn in by one tale can skip easily to another. Most viewers, however, are likely to find this a rich smorgasbord of light entertainment that’s zippy enough to stick with throughout and end up quite pleased with the fact they have seen six stories for the price of one.
The Old West and its wild reputation as the home of reckless adventure is the perfect setting for these tales, where death is a constant peripheral presence. The Coens have long dealt with fate and faith in their work, ascribing a cruel sense of randomness in some films (“No Country for Old Men”) while portraying touching displays of heartfelt spirituality in others (such as their prior film “Hail Caesar,” which focused on a Catholic man who worked as a film censor in 1950s Hollywood).
Things may lean to the cruel and random side of the spectrum here, but the Coens still deliver their work with high class. Despite being R-rated, “Ballad” has no foul language and instead has even its toughest characters speak with an impressive grandiloquence. Its rating stems from the occasionally strong moments of violence, which include shootings and unfortunate deaths by arrows and even tomahawks.
However, even these moments are handled with enough restraint that this is a film both parents and teens can enjoy together without concern. As we’re approaching the long Thanksgiving weekend, the fact that there are six distinct tales adding up to one delicious result could make this a cinematic feast for the older family members to enjoy.
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