Tim Blake Nelson plays Buster Scruggs, a singing cowboy gunslinger, in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a film by Joel and Ethan Coen. (Netflix)

Tim Blake Nelson plays Buster Scruggs, a singing cowboy gunslinger, in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a film by Joel and Ethan Coen. (Netflix)

Coen brothers turn Western conventions upside-down in ‘Scruggs’

The initially funny, eventually bleak movie reminds us that death lurked everywhere in the Old West.

Too bad the title of the new multi-story Coen brothers film is taken from the first of its episodes. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” has the ring of a cartoon spoof, and it’s a perfectly suitable title for the film’s first segment, a Western send-up so broad it reminds us that every Coen brothers film has a little Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner spinning around inside it.

But this movie, taken as a whole, is no spoof, nor a cartoon. Its first two sections are very funny, but gradually the project moves away from comedy and into something else, something kind of amazing.

Exquisitely crafted and relentlessly bleak, “Buster Scruggs” is a glorious wagon train of dark mischief, a strangely entertaining autopsy on the human condition. Like Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Burn After Reading,” it pretends to be silly while it slips you the needle.

That first episode introduces us to Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson, from the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou”), a pipsqueak gunslinger with a quick draw, whose time in an Old West town is necessarily limited. He also sings. Of course.

The next story places James Franco and Stephen Root in a funny one-joke premise that’s literally “gallows humor.” Things go grimmer with a tale about a theatrical trouper (Liam Neeson) traveling with his performer, a master thespian (the curious Harry Melling, from the “Harry Potter” world) who happens to lack arms and legs.

Next, Tom Waits stars as a prospector (of the variety inevitably described as “grizzled”) digging his way to a gold strike, in a tale — adapted from a Jack London short story — less sarcastic than the others here.

There’s a wagon train story, with Zoe Kazan as a forlorn traveler, Bill Heck as a lovelorn scout and Grainger Hines as the trail boss. This episode’s bitter pill is a typical Coen concept: Take certain well-worn characters from the Western and turn them on their heads, put comedy where you expect sincerity and sour endings where you expect happy ones.

The final yarn is a “Twilight Zone” number about a mysterious stagecoach ride, a jaunt that sews everything together with a morbid wink. The five actors in this piece are just right, from the familiar faces of Brendan Gleeson and Tyne Daly to the choice character actors Saul Rubinek and Chelcie Ross, to the splendidly odd JonJo O’Neill.

The movie has a very limited theatrical release, but you can watch it right now on Netflix, and it’s as though the Coens handed an exploding cigar to the cable channel: “Buster Scruggs” isn’t so much about spoofing the Western as it is declaring storytelling itself to be a deadly pastime.

I don’t read reviews before I write my own, but I scanned some Rotten Tomatoes headlines and noticed the consensus, even among Coen fans, is that “Buster Scruggs” is “uneven,” the sort of crapshoot you expect with an anthology film.

I disagree. Everything fits together in a commanding way: every piece of buckskin, every shaft of light falling across some dadburn varmint’s face, every carefully chosen actor (recognizable and otherwise). It’s like a beautifully embroidered needlework laid across a gravesite. See it on Netflix and be chilled, because “Buster Scruggs” is a reminder that most Western ballads were about the way to dusty death.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (4 stars)

The new film from Joel and Ethan Coen is a multi-story Western saga, initially quite funny but increasingly bleak. The film turns beloved storytelling conventions on their heads, and reminds us in strangely entertaining ways that those old cowboy ballads were all about death. Great cast of knowns and not-so-knowns, led by Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits and Liam Neeson.

Rating: R, for violence

Opening: Friday on Netflix

Talk to us

More in Life

Woman shopping pink petunia flower at market. Customer choosing flowers at garden center
Four great reasons to visit the garden center in August

If the dog days of summer are getting you down, hightail it down to your local nursery for some inspiration and therapy.

Andrew Vait, left to right, Annie Jantzer and Linzy Collins of The Little Lies rehearses Monday evening in Everett, Washington on May 16, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

The Music at the Marina series concludes today with The Little Lies, a Fleetwood Mac tribute band.

Vaccinium ovatum, or evergreen huckleberry, is an iconic native plant of the Pacific Northwest. (Richie Steffen)
Great Plant Pick: Evergreen huckleberry

This iconic Pacific Northwest native plant is versatile, easy to grow and defines our landscape.

Photo Caption: A zhadou is a bowl for discarding table scraps. This one sold for $7,680 at Nadeau's Auction Gallery.
This elegant porcelain bowl has a lowly function: table scraps

The European and American equivalents had it even worse. They were used in bathrooms.

Take a journey to Stanwood-Camano’s past at annual event

The sixth annual Stanwood/Camano Historic Sites Tour is set for Aug. 26-27.

Josh Haazard Stands inside his workspace, the HaazLab, where he creates a variety of cosplay props and other creative gadgets, on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, at his home in Monroe, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
This contraption crafter turns junk into sci-fi weaponry

Joshamee “The Chief” Haazard is a costume prop maker in Monroe. He transforms trash into treasure.

Jennifer Bardsley's daughter told her mom to use the panorama function on her smartphone camera to get this stretched visual effect. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Back-to-school shopping with budget-conscious teens

Jennifer Bardsley’s son, daughter and nieces taught her these tricks for saving a lot of money on new school wardrobes.

A performer with Up Up Up, a touring circus on a flatbed truck with a crane for aerial acts. (Submitted photo)
Double fun in Everett with a big truck circus, big screen movie

Up Up Up circus returns to Hewitt at 6 p.m. “Encanto” at the Sail-in Cinema at the waterfront is at 8:25 p.m.

A bald eagle flys over Howarth Park back to it’s perch on Friday, April 22, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Learn how to photograph birds in three-part workshop

Participants will learn to make appealing, sharp bird photos even if they are new to photography.

Most Read