For 'Ballad of Buster Scruggs,' Coens travel to Old West

More so than with most filmmakers, the movies of the Coen brothers are an acquired taste. Some of their movies, like “Hail, Caesar!,” leave me cold; others, especially “No Country for Old Men,” I consider near-masterpieces. Their new movie, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which is in theaters and on Netflix, strikes me as mid-to-upper range Coen fare. It’s an anthology film consisting of six discrete vignettes set in the Old West. This provides a measure of relief: If one episode is not going well, rest assured another, hopefully better, one will soon replace it.

The film’s deliberately old-school opening offers up a hoary illustrated volume – “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier” – from which the six stories are brought to life one by one. The eponymous first episode, starring Tim Blake Nelson as a singing cowboy and deadly marksman, is also the film’s best. Nelson, in his starched white cowboy duds and riding atop his bright white horse as he croons in a spacious, echoing valley, is like an alternate universe Gene Autry. His mile-wide smile carries an inexplicable flash of malevolence that comes to the fore when he rides into a local town and, provoked by some scurvy locals, proceeds to shoot up the malefactors with an almost balletic grace. Buster’s grinning glee at being the fastest gun around is inevitably challenged by a young upstart, but even this standard western movie trope is upended as Buster, still grinning, is last seen wafting sky-high on glistening angel’s wings.

The episode is alternately funny, deranged, and, in the end, astonishingly lyrical, of all things. At least in their more successful forays, the Coens’ characteristic tone, as it was with the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel, is a mashup of the facetious and the deadly serious, and never more so than in this first tale.

From here on, the episodes are hit-and-miss. Even the good sections have their weak spots. In “Near Algodones,” James Franco plays a would-be bank robber who tangles with Comanches and frontier bad guys and is never far from a rope’s noose. It’s a one-joke jape, a nihilist goof with, it must be said, a great punchline, but the war-whoop depiction of the Native Americans here is so retro that I kept waiting, in vain, for the Coens to subvert it, especially since subversion is supposed to be their specialty. 

“Meal Ticket,” the next episode, is much more successful, despite its longueurs. Liam Neeson plays a manager in a traveling act featuring a limbless man (Harry Melling) who recites from Shelley, Shakespeare, and the Gettysburg Address as they travel in a rickety coach from one remote outpost to another, cadging spare change from the increasingly sparse audiences. What saves the story from abject gruesomeness is the transporting passion that this man injects into his orations and the dawning realization that he and his act are foredoomed. 

“All Gold Canyon” brings us into the green lushness of a mountain valley where a lone prospector, played by Tom Waits at his most gravelly voiced, is panning for gold. Almost as a sidelight, the episode provides a crash course in how to mine a vein, and the old man’s glee in having this pristine world all to himself is palpable. He’s the cheeriest prospector since Walter Huston in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Inevitably, since this is a Coen brothers movie, this Eden is despoiled, but mercifully, they love this old coot too much to dispose of him.

The penultimate tale, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” has Zoe Kazan as a frontier woman on a wagon train to Oregon, and it drags until its final sequence, which again features more war-whooping Native Americans but concludes on a note of genuine sorrow. 

The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” is a bit like “Stagecoach” redone as a “Twilight Zone” episode. The stagecoach is carrying two jovial British bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill) as they transport a body in the dead of night. Their coachmates include Tyne Daly as a suffocatingly snooty dowager and Saul Rubinek, that marvelous comic actor, as a witty French twit. 

How intently should we take Joel and Ethan Coen as artists? Despite their extreme unevenness and the flip misanthropy that runs through their work, I think they deserve to be taken seriously as such. In this new film, their extraordinary jeweler’s-eye attention to detail, their gift for concocting dialogue in plummy 19th-century vernacular, their lyrical embrace of wide-open landscapes, and their woeful nihilism that conceives of a world where paradise is always on the precipice of ruination are hallmarks of something much more than mere jokesterism. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some strong violence.)