The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” has so many deaths it’s practically a Quentin Tarantino film.

Luckily, the Coen Brothers are behind this and there’s plenty of irony and lots of laughs. Originally pitched as a Netflix series, it’s now a six-vignette film that shows just how tough life was in the Wild West.

Gunslinging, hanging, shoot-outs – you name it – suggest how folks trying to get ahead died.

Supposedly chapters in a book, the six episodes introduce a variety of characters, including Buster (Tim Blake Nelson), a singing cowboy who smiles when he shoots. He’s good at both, but when you see him square off with a man calling him out, you realize this isn’t Gene Autry. The resulting gunplay is harsh; a subsequent duel even deadlier.

James Franco, Tom Waits, Tyne Daly and Liam Neeson factor in, playing characters in the Coens’ version of a pulp novel. The visuals, though, are so stunning you could be lulled into complacency while watching Waits, for example, pan for gold.

There’s sneaky subtext to all the stories, more than a little music and a 1950s anthology feel that makes you wonder if there aren’t more tales in the Buster Scruggs tome.

Harry Melling gets a special shout-out for playing a man with no arms or legs but an ability to entertain with his voice. He’s taken from town to town to recite classics for audiences. His boss (Neeson) sees how thin the crowds get and realizes he has to do something. Coming near the middle of the film, it’s not as obvious how it’ll end but it’s just as chilling as Franco hanging from a tree.

The Coens love the art of distraction and aren’t afraid to use it in the six installments. Some seem longer than others; some are just so odd you can’t look away. All have the specter of death hanging over people just looking to get ahead. Many of them are chatty; most have the feel of the Coens’ remake of “True Grit.”

Clearly, there’s a place for westerns. It’s just a matter of figuring out how they can best be used. Six brief stories may not be the best way to approach the genre. But they’re a nice appetizer to what might come next.

Because the first episode – with Buster – is such an odd throwback, it could be the one to expand. A film about a singing cowboy as seen through 21st century eyes, could be the concept to pop.

Roy, Gene and the gang would be so proud.

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