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On Netflix: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018)

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THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS
(US - 2018)

Written and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. Cast: Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jonjo O'Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek, Tom Waits, Clancy Brown, Jefferson Mays, Stephen Root, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, Ralph Ineson, Jesse Luken, Sam Dillon. (R, 133 mins)

There's a loose, shaggy dog vibe to THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, a six-part western anthology from the Coen Bros. Erroneously reported to be a planned Netflix series retooled as a Netflix Original film, it still feels like a feature-length pilot for a potential series that could be hosted by Buster Scruggs, the protagonist of the first segment, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a singing cowboy of the Roy Rogers/Gene Autry sort, but with a ruthless streak that's incongruous with his affable, folksy demeanor. He rides into the town of Frenchman's Gulch and crosses paths with the fearsome Çurly Joe (Clancy Brown), which starts the first in a series of showdowns. It's an amusing piece that's short enough to not overstay its welcome, and is a fine display of the kind of absurdist humor that defines the Coen Bros' funniest work. That same tone is apparent in "Near Algodones," with James Franco as an outlaw who messes with the wrong teller (Stephen Root) in a bank in the middle-of-nowhere desert town of Tucumcari, sending his day on a quick journey from bad to worse.





The Coens have been sitting on some of these ideas for years, and indeed, first two stories are briskly-paced and funny, almost like short sketch concepts that wouldn't have had a place in any of their other projects. BALLAD takes a much darker and almost macabre, SANTA SANGRE-like turn with "Meal Ticket," with Liam Neeson as a grubby, hard-drinking impresario traveling from town to town with Harrison (Harry Melling), an armless, legless "artist" who recites pieces of Biblical verses, poetry, and the Gettysburg Address into a sort of still-life performance art that plays to decreasing attendance as they venture to more distant areas until the impresario finds a new act and has to make a decision about what to do with his old one. "All Gold Canyon," based on a Jack London story, stars Tom Waits as a grizzled old prospector who finds a gold deposit (which he names "Mr. Pocket"). It's mostly a one-man show to a certain point, but while Waits is entertaining, this is probably the least interesting of the stories.


The fifth segment, "The Gal Who Got Rattled," based on a story by Stewart Edward White, is the longest and most substantive, with a devastating gut-punch of a wrap-up. On the arduous Oregon Trail, Alice (Zoe Kazan) is left to fend for herself when her older brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) dies unexpectedly. Trail boss Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) and his right-hand man Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) offer their condolences and bury Gilbert but they're a day away before Alice realizes their money was on his person and is now buried with him. Potential Indian attacks make it too dangerous to go back, but as they continue on the trail, a bond forms between Alice, who has no money and no one else in the world, and Billy, who wants to settle down with a family and not grow old and alone like Mr. Walker. "Gal" meanders and takes its time and doesn't seem to be headed anywhere in particular, but it sneaks up on you, and it gets a lot from a trio of outstanding performances by Kazan, Heck, and especially Hines, a guy who's been around in bit parts (he's credited as "Emergency Room Aid" in ROCKY II) and minor supporting roles for decades but has never before gotten a chance to shine like he does here.


The final segment, "The Mortal Remains," could almost pass for an old-west version of DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, with five stagecoach passengers barely tolerating one another: Irishman Clarence (Brendan Gleeson), Englishman Thigpen (Jonjo O'Neill), Frenchman Rene (Saul Rubinek), society matron Mrs. Betjeman (Tyne Daly), and a scurvy, unkempt, and extremely talkative trapper (Chelcie Ross). Disagreements abound and barbs are traded, and Mrs. Betjeman is worked into a state of apoplexy, but as its pointed out, the driver never stops. Like "Gal,""The Mortal Remains" engages in some clever misdirection by seemingly going nowhere, especially in the hilariously rambling monologue delivered by the trapper, which gives veteran character actor Ross more dialogue than he's ever had in a movie. But then Clarence calms down Mrs. Betjeman by singing an Irish ballad and the story becomes something else entirely. Its final destination may not come as a surprise, especially once O'Neill starts acting like he's auditioning for a Vincent Price biopic, but in spite of that, it becomes oddly moving.


THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS feels too cobbled together and scattershot to be top-tier Coen Bros., and despite their claims that this was its intended format all along, it really does play like the two-hour premiere of a TV series. But even in a weaker segment like "All Gold Canyon," there's joys to be had. Shot digitally by Bruno Delbonnel, the film has some stunning shots of desert and canyon vistas along with some--perhaps intentionally--dubious CGI visuals. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS has too many positives to say it's only for Coen completists, but when their bio is written, this will be one of the peculiar outliers in their filmography. It's by no means the place for newbies stumbling upon this on Netflix and impulsively deciding to begin their Coen studies, but having said that, it's a good sampler appetizer for their unique style and the themes that have run through their work over the last four decades.




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