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Review: Coen Bros masterfully tell dark tales of the West in Netflix's 'Ballad of Buster Scruggs'

Tim Blake Nelson is Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Tim Blake Nelson is Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen. Netflix

Part of what makes Joel and Ethan Coen such fun filmmakers is a willingness to try their hands, to test the limits of their immense skill, to maybe even fail.

It’s a disposition that’s led to a few forgettable movies, sure—but more often than not, our native sons land on something as potent as it is surprising. While certain trademarks carry across pictures, there’s a sense of mystery going into any Coen brothers movie that you don’t get with, say, Wes Anderson or a Woody Allen film.

This unpredictability is multiplied six-fold with the The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Framed by an anonymous hand flipping through the pages of a Western anthology book, the Coen brothers’ latest offers a fistful of stories that, at the outset, feels more O Brother Where Art Thou than No Country for Old Men. The film soon reveals a darker nature.

The muted colors of the opening vignette hint at the bleakness to come. The eponymous Buster (Tim Blake Nelson), as skilled with a guitar as he is at cutting down a man, imparts his congenial cowboy wisdom with signature Coen eloquence, doling out death with his six-shooter as he travels the West. His effortless, almost supernatural moseying between gunfights builds up a gruesome Gene Autry mythos before the audience is reminded what kind of world we—both character and viewer—are really living in.

From here we wander through stories connected only by their dark and blackly humorous tones: A robber (James Franco) picks the wrong bank; two traveling showmen (Liam Neeson, Harry Melling) find money slowing as winter comes; a prospector (Tom Waits) narrows in on his big payday; an unmarried woman (Zoe Kazan) manages alone on the Oregon Trail; and in a stage coach five very different travelers discuss the nature of humanity through a dark and stormy ride.

There’s whimsy here, no doubt. Yet beyond all comedy, these tales can be as dark and merciless as anything the Coens have ever produced. Be they victims of circumstance or their own foibles, every character loses something. Every story hits hard.

Anthology films are rarely this effective. The standout pieces are so good it’s hard not to jump back and forth on a favorite (though if pressed, I’d say Kazan’s “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the best). While a couple of the stories are weaker, the worst among them still offers a solemnity and intrigue that supplements the others, making The Ballad of Buster Scruggs both seamless and compounding in its effect.

With a Netflix release, its efficacy is even greater. Those less inclined to watch an omnibus film may find the format more digestible in a medium that allows for breaks—though by the same token, Netflix bingers might find themselves unable to stop watching.

With The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers have once again tested their mettle and once again succeeded. Here we get not just one great story but six, each told masterfully. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you feeling something ineffable, that makes you think about it for weeks, its grim positions only fully realized with time.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Tim Blake Nelson
Rated: R. 
Theater: Your living room! Begins streaming via Netflix on Friday