Classic Western-movie moments are curated and celebrated in the Coen brothers’ magnificent “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
With “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the Coen brothers intend to show us something.
It’s something we’ve seen before in movie Westerns, and that’s the point. They’ve packed their picture with classic Western-movie images: the showdown on a dusty street, the bearded old prospector panning for gold, a wagon train threading its way across a rolling prairie, an Indian war party appearing on a distant ridge, a hanging.
All here. And all distilled down to their lovingly curated iconic essences. Visual references reminiscent of everything from the mournful mountain snowscapes of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” to John Ford’s “Stagecoach” interiors are in the mix.
Director of photography Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Jess Gonchor are two of the biggest stars of this picture. You’ve never seen a mountain valley so green and pristine cut through with a clear rushing stream of almost unbearable loveliness as is seen here. And a weathered bank building standing alone — no town around it — on a featureless desert landscape: Didn’t we see that in a Sergio Leone movie? In our mind’s eye, yes.
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Originally conceived as a made-for-TV Netflix series, the Coens repurposed “Buster” into a six-chapter, big-screen anthology. It starts strong, with a grinning Tim Blake Nelson playing Buster, a folksy singing cowboy, dressed in purest white, strumming his black guitar atop his snow-white steed. A crack shot with a six-shooter, he breaks the fourth wall by jocularly talking to the audience and praising his own pistolero skills.
Later, there’s James Franco playing a luckless bank robber who winds up with a noose around his neck — on two separate occasions. That situation prompts one of the best lines in the movie when he turns to a whimpering pilgrim next to him on the gallows and says, “First time?”
And then things gradually darken. Darken to a chapter in which Liam Neeson plays an itinerant, threadbare impresario touring the shadowy, snowy mountainous land with an armless, legless thespian (Harry Melling) who declaims Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and the Gettysburg Address to rough-hewn frontier audiences.
Death is ever-present in these six tales, either upfront in the showdown street or behind someone’s unsuspecting back, caught in an ambusher’s gunsight. It’s handled with humor, as when a gunned-down cowpoke sprouts angel’s wings and warbles his way up to heaven. Or with ghost-story bleakness in a scene called “The Mortal Remains.” There’s a pitilessness in all of it, typical of the Coens, suitable in this movie to situations in which few favored character get out alive.
Dialogue is delivered in a careful and formal fashion, a feature ”Buster” shares with the Coens’ “True Grit” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
And behind it all is Carter Burwell’s evocative, melancholy score, another Coen trademark.
All in all, this “Buster” is something else.
★★★½ “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs,” with Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Harry Melling, Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. 132 minutes Rated R for some strong violence. Opens Nov. 16 at the Crest.