An anthology of six stories, all about different aspects of the Old West.
After 25 films, one knows to expect the unexpected from the Coen Brothers. And their inspired western collection, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” is no exception.
The writing-directing-editing duo’s fresh inventive take on big-sky country scenarios has touches of the absurd and the macabre, with whimsy, satire and melancholy as well. A few stand out, but all are interesting and lovingly crafted, an homage to good old-fashioned storytelling.
Every vignette starts out as a chapter in a beautiful hardbound book, illustrated with color plates and tracing paper, drawing us into a daring world of adventure. Framing the anthology this way gives it an authenticity, as if they were tales handed down from generations.
The first is the funniest, featuring a jaunty Tim Blake Nelson as singing cowboy Buster Scruggs, a gunslinger no one should underestimate.
The second, “Near Algodones,” stars James Franco as a bank robber and Stephen Root as the chatty clerk. “Meal Ticket” is a slice-of-life tale without much pizzazz, with Liam Neeson as the impresario/caretaker of a disabled storyteller in a traveling show.
“All Gold Canyon” is a twist-of-fate tale starring Tom Waits as an ornery gold prospector, inspired by a Jack London story.
The longest, and what feels like the most complete, is “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” a wagon train journey through Indian country. Zoe Kazan plays a single woman headed for a new life and Bill Heck is the future homesteader who takes a shine to her. It’s also inspired by Stewart Edward White.
The final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” stars Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross and Jonjo O’Neill as stagecoach passengers sharing the space uncomfortably until they reach their destination. The most incomplete and different in tone than the rest, it does have terrific atmospheric parting shots.
The vistas they chose to shoot in New Mexico are magnificent. French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s images are poetic, capturing pastures, mountain passes, clear streams and long stretches of prairies and plains in an unspoiled, pristine way.
Carter Burwell’s music score vividly conjures up the wind sweeping down the plains and the majestic snow-covered hills, and perfectly punctuates the action.
Their wit, offbeat style and ingenuity always set them apart – yet everything Joel and Ethan Coen produce is a unique conceit.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is as comfortable as sitting around a campfire with others who excel at creating an enjoyable experience.