“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” was originally conceived and shot as a six-episode series for Netflix. Its writer-directors, Joel and Ethan Coen, decided instead to jam the episodes — violent, picturesque, cornball mythic tales of the Old West — into one feature-length anthology film. If you were going to be cynical about it, you might say “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is still a Netflix series — it’s just one that the Coens are forcing you to binge-watch. The movie runs 135 minutes, and since the episodes are uneven in quality (though the best of them seize and hold you), you may feel, at moments, that it’s too much of a just-okay thing.
Yet “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in its gnarly and ambling way, does justify its existence as a movie. It’s full of majestic wilderness imagery that pops on screen (Monument Valley has rarely looked this otherworldly in its grandeur, and there are green mountain vistas so pristine you want to go back in time and live there). More than that, the episodes are linked by a scabrous obsession with death that, in the end, adds up to something. Not something major, but a theme with a pinch of resonance.
In “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” life is nasty, brutish, and short, even for a number of the protagonists; the film’s signature motif is people getting killed with one clean shot through the forehead. If that sounds like a vintage Coen vision, or maybe a vintage Coen joke, it is, but the Coens have always made death into a semi-philosophical jape. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a pop fantasia that’s interested in the meaning of what a brutal place the Old West really was.
The film’s conceit is that it’s bringing to life a dusty old book of Western stories, each represented by a painted illustration that evokes the children’s books of the ‘40s and ’50s. There’s nothing revisionist about any of it. The Coens go back to the classical Western tropes and clichés: spurs and campfires and wagon trains, bars full of dirty bearded poker-playing varmints, shoot-outs at high noon, old-man prospectors, and — yes — Indians. No, not Native Americans but old-fashioned Hollywood war-painted Injuns who exist in the movie for no other reason than to come charging out of the horizon with lightning savagery. Maybe the reason the Coens get away with this is that the film doesn’t portray the Indians as villains. They’re just raw forces of nature.
The first episode, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” is the most insanely violent, because it’s pure six-shooter burlesque: an over-the-top satire of the chutzpah of Western heroism, with Tim Blake Nelson, all wholesome grins and drawling cracker-barrel verbiage, as Buster, a singing cowboy in white Roy Rogers duds who rides through Monument Valley and then comes to a bar full of outlaws that refuses to serve him whiskey. Within minutes, he has shot everyone to death with the speed of a superhero. The joke, of course, is that Nelson, with his hayseed mugging, looks like the most harmless yokel imaginable. At a poker game, the violence gets more hilariously extreme, but through it all Nelson just keeps smiling, and singing. The episode is pretty funny, and if nothing else it’s an original: the first (and probably last) cowboy splatter musical.
Where can the Coens go from here? As it turns out, they can only get more down to earth, but that first episode establishes the film’s running fixation: It will be all about the act of killing, and the act of dying. Our senses are pumped, but the next episode, unfortunately, is the weakest of the lot. It stars James Franco as a robber who faces a gun-slinging bank teller who wears kitchen pots for armor (don’t ask). Franco then finds himself in a noose on horseback, and has to figure out how to free himself. This episode seems caught between farce and reality, which is why it doesn’t quite work.
But then the Coens, to our surprise, settle into a more relaxed human vibe. Episode three, entitled “Meal Ticket,” is about a low-rent traveling showman, played by a gruffly monosyllabic Liam Neeson with tobacco-stained teeth, who is basically P.T. Barnum with one freak. That character is known as the Artist (Henry Melling), and he’s a soft-voiced Brit without arms or legs. The gimmick is that people pay to sit and watch him, his torso poised upon a stool, as he recites eloquent passages of everything from famous poetry to the Gettysburg Address. The episode builds to a nervy climax of shocking heartlessness, but to get there we have to sit through one too many of the Artist’s performances.
I could talk about the next episode, “All Gold Canyon,” starring Tom Waits in white hair as an ancient prospector panning for gold, but the less said about it the better — not because it’s bad (Waits is touching), but because it’s not good enough. It illustrates the downside of the Coens’ decision to transform this project into a film. As a TV half hour, viewed on its own, the mild meandering episode would have gotten by, but coming in the middle of a movie overstuffed with stop-and-start narratives, it feels like padding.
But the upside of the Coens’ decision starts after that. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” has the breadth and pull of a real movie. It stars Zoe Kazan as a lonely lass who travels with her brother out to Oregon to pursue a hapless business deal (and a possible marriage), only to find herself stranded on a covered-wagon train after he succumbs to cholera. The episode is actually romantic (something that doesn’t happen too often in Coen world), though you know Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t about to lure their audience into a love story for the purpose of leaving us reassured. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” has twists and shock and lovely performances, and its effect is to leave us haunted.
That, as it turns out, is the perfect note on which to glide into the Coens’ final act, “The Mortal Remains,” in which three quibbling characters — Chelcie Ross as a wizened animal trapper who won’t stop talking, Tyne Daly as a primly furious Victorian fussbudget, and Saul Rubinek as the Frenchman who surveys them with flip blasé worldliness — find themselves riding on a metaphysical coach trip with no return ticket. Their guides, played by Brendan Gleeson and a devious imp of an actor named Jonjo O’Neill, break the news to them gently, but the news is grim, and the movie, in its weirdly funny way, wants us to revel in it. To ask ourselves what we’ll feel like when we’re on that coach. Will there be an audience for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”? I predict: not enough of one. But for those who go, it’s a Coen trifle — or, rather, six of them — that adds up to a trifle more.