“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” opens with Tim Blake Nelson summoning the spirit of Gene Autry, warbling a tune on horseback as he coaxes viewers to accompany him down happy trails.
It’s a trap.
Ethan and Joel Coen have a reputation for making films that shatter expectations, and “Ballad” is no exception. A collection of short stories originally intended to unspool as a TV anthology series, it may appear to be a romantic homage to the American western. But it’s really a series of six unrelated life-or-death showdowns — and if you’re at all familiar with the filmmakers’ catalog, you know surviving is a long shot.
Nelson’s Buster Scruggs sets the stage in this 2¼-hour film, which is playing simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix starting Friday. He’s a ramblin,’ gamblin’ man who takes unbridled joy in leading saloon patrons in song and breaking the fourth wall to chew the fat with the audience. He’s Gomer Pyle in a 10-gallon hat.
But it soon becomes painfully — and hilariously — clear that he takes equal pleasure in shooting the fingers off any cowpoke who dares to bust up his party.
Scruggs disappears in less than 20 minutes. Anyone tempted to take a moment to compare and contrast him with Javier Bardem’s coin-flipping villain in the Coens’ far more ambitious “No Country for Old Men” will find themselves left in the dust while the brothers barrel ahead to the next chapter of their dime-store novel.
That yarn features James Franco (never looking more rugged or handsome) as a bank robber thwarted by an eccentric teller (Coen favorite Stephen Root) who uses pots and pans as armor in a shootout. As Franco’s rogue stands on the gallows, ready to face the end, he turns to the sniveling convict next to him.
“First time?” he quips as a noose slips around his neck. Franco’s cowboy may be in peril, but the actor seems to be having a ball.
He’s not the only one. Liam Neeson, taking a break from vigilante duties, doesn’t have much dialogue in his role as a post-Civil War Geppetto who is managing an armless, legless “freak show.” But his face has plenty to say as the crowds on his small-town circuit begin to thin out.
Tom Waits, making a triumphant return to acting this year (he also has a juicy part in “The Old Man & the Gun”), shines as a stubborn prospector. When he’s convinced he’s found gold, he bellows, “Hello, Mr. Pocket!” a moment as memorable as Walter Huston’s jig in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.”
Zoe Kazan, who should have gotten an Oscar nod for her work in 2017’s “The Big Sick,” brings great humanity to her role as a luckless pioneer woman en route to an arranged marriage. I could have happily spent the film’s entire running time riding shotgun with Kazan, but the Coens aren’t interested in us getting cozy with their characters. This is the closest the brothers have ever come to speed dating.
That approach may disappoint fans who prefer the Coens’ more contemplative work, such as “Miller’s Crossing” or “Fargo.” And it’ll be downright disturbing to those who bristle at the film’s treatment of Native Americans as nothing more than savages searching for scalps.
Richness and depth do come from cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel — he also shot 2013’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” — who takes full advantage of the snow-kissed mountains of New Mexico and the winding rivers of the Nebraska panhandle. You can see why the Coens decided to release the film on the big screen, where viewers can fully appreciate Delbonnel’s love affair with the landscape.
The stories themselves are not nearly as romantic, but they do have their comedic moments. An unarmed Scruggs outfoxes a gunman across from a poker table with a maneuver straight out of Looney Tunes. While in the process of stealing some eggs from a nest, Waits holds a staring contest with an owl that’s an absolute hoot. Root’s “Pan Man” more than nods to the actor’s beloved nerd, Milton, from “Office Space.”
The closest the directors come to engaging in deep thought takes place in the final chapter, a wordy exchange between stagecoach passengers from different social classes, killing time with songs and soliloquies. The conversation turns to death, naturally, and for once some of the movie’s characters shudder at the implications.
If Scruggs had given the subject some thought, he would have been singing a different tune.