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Tim Blake Nelson in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a collection of six stories by Joel and Ethan Coen currently streaming on Netflix. In “The Possession of Hannah Grace,” when a cop who is just out of rehab takes the graveyard shift in a city hospital morgue, she faces a series of bizarre, violent events caused by an evil entity in one of the corpses.
The six tales in Joel and Ethan Coen’s anthology film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” are nasty, brutish and short. Varying in tone but all set in the American West shortly before the Civil War, these films are virtuosic, capturing different aspects of this enduringly mythic time, held together by a unified vision of dark humor and brutality, and sparkling with profoundly beautiful cinematography.
The Coen Brothers are the most specific, assured and skilled people making films, or possibly anything else, right now. Everything they do is so precisely constructed and utterly idiosyncratic, that as you witness each moment, it is clear that nothing could look or sound any other way than it does, and it is brilliant.
The first section, which is about the titular Buster Scruggs, is absurd, slapstick and ludicrous, hilariously violent and unrealistic. Do not stop watching if you don’t connect with this farcical singing cowboy story; it is merely laying the conceptual scene for what follows, as open hilarity gives way to more restrained and ironic humor, and the viewer transitions from giggles to grimaces.
In “Near Algodones” James Franco tries to rob a bank and meets another memorable performance from character actor Stephen Root, who serves Franco the first of many reversals of fortune. This tale is pithy and ironic, as Franco’s cosmic luck switches back and forth with breakneck speed. In the Old West, death is never far away, and each story tackles a different character grappling with this constant reality.
Each of these tales is disturbing in its own way, but “Meal Ticket” will haunt you forever. Liam Neeson plays “The Impresario,” a man who drives a charming wagon that opens into a little stage, and there, the unfortunate “Wingless Lark,” a young man without arms or legs, delivers a series of moving orations, from the poem “Ozymandias” to the Gettysburg Address. Neeson feeds the man, Harrison, and puts his makeup on for him, and Harrison’s vulnerability is palpable; he represents every person in this pitiless world, waiting for disaster he has not the smallest chance of preventing.
No less than Tom Waits plays a grizzled prospector in “All Gold Canyon,” one of the film’s more endearing characters, a man in a battle with nature and the elements searching for gold. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the longest and most developed story, aching and even romantic. Zoe Kazan plays Alice Longabaugh, a young lady heading west in a wagon train, after a simply hilarious scene in the boarding house where she and her brother reside. Her character is gorgeously realized, and the rhythm of this story stretches perfectly, creating a respite in the quick pacing.
Then, the film ends so appropriately with “The Mortal Remains,” a dazzlingly verbal piece that feels theatrical, set almost entirely inside a stagecoach where five characters ride to a place called Fort Morgan. In some ways, this story sums up the different viewpoints of those that came before it, as three characters debate the nature of man while two undertakers sagely look on.
Every minute of these stories is brilliant — spectacular looking and mind bogglingly well-written. In the capable hands of Joel and Ethan Coen, Western and human tropes of masculinity, mortality, humanity, and spirituality are bent, reformed, and displayed with a sharp crackle of ill will and, always, indelible visual grace notes. They are the Impresarios, creating a work that is so wholly realized on every level, so complete and effective in its singular vision, that these six stories add up to an achievement that is wise, ridiculous, gorgeous, hideous, and contains some of the best onscreen monologues and original characters of all time.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is currently streaming on Netflix.