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Film review'Driving oxen is not self-evident'

Coen Bros. draw guns and chuckles in six-part, existentialist Western flick

Joel and Ethan Coen spin through genres and humorous quiet melancholy with ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,’ which hits theaters — and Netflix — November 16

  • Screen capture from Joel and Ethan Coen's 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.' (Netflix/screenshot)
    Screen capture from Joel and Ethan Coen's 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.' (Netflix/screenshot)
  • Screen capture from Joel and Ethan Coen's 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.' (Netflix/screenshot)
    Screen capture from Joel and Ethan Coen's 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.' (Netflix/screenshot)
  • Screen capture from Joel and Ethan Coen's 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.' (Netflix/screenshot)
    Screen capture from Joel and Ethan Coen's 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.' (Netflix/screenshot)
  • Screen capture from Joel and Ethan Coen's 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.' (Netflix/screenshot)
    Screen capture from Joel and Ethan Coen's 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.' (Netflix/screenshot)
  • Screen capture from Joel and Ethan Coen's 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.' (Netflix/screenshot)
    Screen capture from Joel and Ethan Coen's 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.' (Netflix/screenshot)

NEW YORK — There are not one but two owl wranglers credited in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” It’s not too surprising, as Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie has probably the best performance by an owl I’ve ever seen.

“We definitely loaded it up with animals,” Ethan Coen remarked at a press conference at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center on Thursday, where “Scruggs” made its North American premiere before heading to selected theaters and, simultaneously, Netflix on November 16.

“Flies are very difficult to work with,” older brother Joel joked, before admitting that “when you do a Western, 90 percent of the time all you are worried about are the horses.”

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” isn’t a typical Western, just as the Minnesota-born Jewish-American geniuses behind “The Big Lebowski,” “Fargo,” “A Serious Man” and “No Country For Old Men” aren’t typical filmmakers.

Their resumé defiantly smashes boundaries, and this latest is a six-episode spin through the Western genre through different lenses. It is a good match between the Coens’ talents and the Netflix distribution format, because, let’s face it, it’s sometimes hard to make it two straight hours at home without hitting pause a bunch of times.

The individual stories have no connection in plot but there is a flow. Each of the individual shorts, some written as far back as 25 years ago, is a tonally different sub-genre. “It’s like listening to songs on a record album,” Joel offered.

The first “track” is the catchy riff that grabs you by the throat: a preposterously madcap shoot-em-up with a singin’ outlaw/wordsmith played by Tim Blake Nelson. The second section is still a riot, but a little less zany, with James Franco as a bank robber with cosmically bad luck. Things settle down (the first slow tune on the album) for a bewildering tale about a frontier theater impresario played by Liam Neeson. It took me until hours later to realize just how deceptively sad and meaningful this short film was, much like a tune you need to sit with a bit before it gets caught in your ear.

After that: splendor. A gorgeous, simple and repetitive section (easy to dance to?) starring Tom Waits as a gold prospector in the Colorado mountains. (This is where that owl comes in.)

Probably the most straight-forward “story” comes next; a sad wagon train love saga with Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, an angry tribe of Comanche Indians and a scrappy, yippie dog.

“Driving oxen is … not self-evident,” Ethan said mysteriously about this section of the film. “There were times I’d ask if the oxen could do something specifically, and the person handling them would give me a look back.”

Screen capture from Joel and Ethan Coen’s ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.’ (Netflix/screenshot)

The final sequence of the film is almost a play, set on a very spooky stagecoach ride with, among others, Tyne Daly and Saul Rubinek.

Fans of the Coen Brothers’ work will be thrilled with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” as it offers so many varieties on what they do well. It regularly jumps between moments of loquacious absurdity to dusty existentialism. So many lines are just begging to be quoted.

Though most will see it at home on Netflix, the vast Western skies, painted deserts and prairie plateaus are not just there to make the scenes pretty. The enormity and, at times, cruelty of nature is a constant presence interacting with the characters. (Except for the silly, opening sequence set in an intentionally fake-looking 1950s-style set, which Ethan referred to as “a dumbass movie town.”)

Screen capture from Joel and Ethan Coen’s ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.’ (Netflix/screenshot)

To that end, it is a shame that only people in major cities will get a short window to see it on the big screen. (And even then, how many are likely to shell out for a ticket when they’ll have access to it with their Netflix subscription?)

But this is the bargain one must make to get projects like these made. A more traditional studio would not likely pony up the money for such a weird project.

I don’t quite have a handy, pithy bit of commentary to offer about that before spitting out some tobacco juice, but I bet Joel and Ethan Coen do.

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