The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Joel and Ethan Coen are not strangers to the western movie genre but take a different direction with an anthology of six tales of the Old West, beginning with the titular cowboy balladeer in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”

Laura's Review: B

A singing cowboy, bank robber, traveling roadshow impresario, prospector, Oregon bound wagon train traveler and a stagecoach with a dead body stored on its roof are featured in six vignettes in cowriter/editor/directors Joel and Ethan Coen's first anthology film, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." "Buster Scruggs" is also the first Coen brothers' film for Netflix as well as their first digitally shot film. Director of photography Bruno Delbonnel's luminous work here is the film's biggest asset, shafts of sunlight, pale faces, nighttime snowfall and verdant valleys glowing on the screen. As anthology films go, the Coens' Western tales, literally chaptered as a hand turns the pages and illustrations of an old book, are more even than most. The initial two stories are laugh out loud funny, albeit brutal, the cheapness of life of the American Old West a commonality. Two stories are incredibly sad for that very reason, another a meting of justice, while the wrapping episode hints at the supernatural. Tim Blake Nelson stars as the titular character in the chapter that gives the movie its name. He's a good-natured singing cowboy who directly addresses the screen when he's not gunning down folks in cold blood. He finally meets his match in The Kid (Willie Watson) who leads us out in song as Buster makes an unlikely ascent (which alludes to the closing episode). Like the first chapter, 'Near Algodones' is filled with cartoonish sight gags, delightful in their cheeky execution. Cowboy James Franco approaches a bank in the middle of nowhere, demanding its teller (Steven Root) hand over the cash. He gets more than he bargained for as well as the film's funniest line. 'Meal Ticket' is drenched in sorrow, a quality aided immeasurably Delbonnel's beautiful lensing. Liam Neeson is an impresario just scraping by as he brings his show to Western outposts. His thespian/orator (Harry Melling, affecting) is under his complete control, the man with no arms or legs tied to the chair from which he addresses his audiences. After a particularly meager evening, the impresario notes a far larger crowd in the town's center and arranges to buy its attraction, a chicken skilled in adding and subtracting, as his thespian considers his fate. Although we hear numerous readings from the thespian, this episode is notable in that he and his boss never exchange a word of dialogue. Tom Waits is an old prospector on the trail of Mr. Pocket, the gold vein he knows is lurking beneath the earth he's panned in the river flowing through the natural paradise where he and his donkey Lucky have stopped. It's hard not to note that the hole he is digging looks an awful lot like his own grave, but the Coens buck our expectations in 'All Gold Canyon.' 'The Gal Who Got Rattled' is tells the tale of a young woman, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), left in dire straights when the brother who promised an extravagant salary to their hired man dies on the way to Oregon. Her plight draws the interest of Wagonmaster Mr. Arthur's (Grainger Hines) second, Bill Knapp (Bill Heck), who already came to the young woman's aid when her brother's dog, President Pierce, drew complaints because of its incessant barking (his attempt to put the dog down failed, the terrier left running free). Knapp begins to compare his future to the older, single Arthur's and believes Alice may be it, but when Alice hears President Pierce in the distance, she's drawn to the wee creature and wanders from the wagon train into the path of danger. What begins comically at a boarding house then turns into a gentle romance ends tragically. The closing episode, 'The Mortal Remains,' takes place almost entirely within the confines of a stagecoach whose travelers include Irish (Brendan Gleeson) and English (Jonjo O’Neill) bounty hunters, a trapper (Chelcie Ross), a woman (Tyne Daly) rejoining her husband after three years spent with her married daughter and the Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) who doles out amusing judgements on them all. Initially this chapter is reminiscent of Quentin Tarrantino's "The Hateful Eight," especially when we learn of the stagecoach's rooftop cargo, but this one takes a turn towards the otherworldly when the coach pulls up a a hotel that may not be what it seems. Each individual story has its merits, although I personally found the third and fifth entries the most satisfying. Both Harry Melling and Bill Heck should see their stock rise from their performances here. The sprawling cast is stuffed with character actors like David Krumholz, Ralph Ineson and Clancy Brown. Coens' regular Carter Burwell scores the film, his signature sound draped in genre conventions. "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" may not pack the punch of the Coens' greatest works, a difficult hurdle for any anthology film, but its six assorted genre tales exemplify the Coens' career long fascination with the fickle finger of fate. Grade:

Robin's Review: B+

Ever since their feature film debut with “Blood Simple (1984),” the Cohen brothers have created a plethora of feature films. I pored through their filmography and I think, with “Buster Scruggs,” that this is their first anthology feature film. (Before you take me to task, yes, I know they contributed to other anthologies – “Paris, je t’aime (2006)” and “To Each His Own Cinema (2007).”) But, this is their first time taking on all the stories. This is both different territory for the brothers and familiar acreage, too. They know their way around the western genre - “No Country for Old Men (2007)” and “True Grit (2010) – and steep their anthology in Old West folk lore. Each of the six stories is has its own attraction. All are good, as one expects, but each has a different impact, some very amusing – Buster Scruggs in particular – while others are more thoughtful and moving. The many actors who give life to their characters all help to make each tale complete unto itself. If I had to choose a favorite of the six, it would be the Buster Scruggs yarn, but each of the stories is full and complete. Reading a synopsis does not do justice. You have to see it for yourself and decide on your own favorite.