Film & TV

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” A Victory in the War for the Western

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In an era of second-rate biopics, monotonous superhero films and unimaginative remakes and sequels, the Western is a much less celebrated genre than it once was. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” though has seized its place as the commander of the push to reinvigorate the public’s interest in the Western.

Launched on Netflix Nov. 16, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is one film with six stories: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Near Algodones,” “Meal Ticket,” “All Gold Canyon,” “The Gal Who Got Rattled” and “The Mortal Remains.” Each story is presented as a chapter in the made-up book “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier” and tells the tale of an individual looking for their place in the Wild West.

The stories differ in duration, ranging from 15 to almost 40 minutes. Unfortunately, the briefest stories — “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Near Algodones,” which stars James Franco (“127 Hours,” “The Disaster Artist”) — are the most outstanding. Yet, their succinctness might be what causes them to be superior to the other four tales.

In spite of its magnificence, the film seems to be stagnant now and again, particularly during “Meal Ticket” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which clocked in at 38 minutes, making it the lengthiest story in the movie.

At first glance, the two tales — featuring Liam Neeson (“Kinsey,” “Schindler’s List”) and Zoe Kazan (“Ruby Sparks,” “The Big Sick”) respectively — feel as if they could have been abridged. At second glance, though, it’s plain that doing so would have deadened any attachment to that a viewer might have formed with the stories’ protagonists.

“People can’t get enough of [stories] because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose, and we all love hearing about ourselves,” the Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill) declared in “The Mortal Remains.”

As the Englishman, a strange self-identifying “harvester of souls,” whichever story a viewer favors will probably be based on their capability to associate themself with its lead.

If viewers don’t anticipate battle, they’ll likely appreciate each tale. The picture’s trailers are a little deceptive in regard to the quantity of combat in the movie. Its most action-packed segments are frequently shown in promotions, but are few and far between in the movie.

Tim Blake Nelson’s (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Leaves of Grass”) portrayal of the titular character, a singing, gunslinging cowboy, is without doubt the finest performance in the movie. He gives the articulate Buster Scruggs’ lines flawlessly, perfectly performing the peculiar role.

Scruggs’ sweet baritone is emphasized in the darkly comedic “Little Joe the Wrangler (Surly Joe)” and his cover of Marty Robbins’ “Cool Water.” “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings,” Scruggs’ duet with the Kid (folk singer Willie Watson), is a marvelous song in its own right. The remainder of the picture’s soundtrack, composed by Carter Burwell (“Carol,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), is magnificent, especially throughout “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “All Gold Canyon.”

Harry Melling (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Lost City of Z”) is a near runner-up to Nelson as the Artist in “Meal Ticket.” The Artist’s captivating renditions of various poems and speeches — from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” to the Gettysburg Address — are skillfully delivered by Melling. His projection of the Artist’s own emotions solely through facial expressions is also exceptionally impressive.

Writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”) are accomplished when it comes to producing Western flicks. The brothers also adapted and directed the Academy Award-winning “No Country for Old Men” and Academy Award-nominated ‘True Grit.”

However, because of its dark comedy and numerous plots, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is more akin to their “Burn After Reading” than their Westerns with respect to its narrative, which features partly connected plots hinging on a old CIA agent’s misplaced disk. Nevertheless, viewers shouldn’t expect the threads in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” to tie together like they did in “Burn After Reading.”

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” breaks the mold of the contemporary Western via its musical numbers and unlinked, quirky tales of the American frontier. Maybe there’s hope that the war for the Western will be won after all.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is now available on Netflix.

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