“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is one of the darkest movies by Joel and Ethan Coen, and also among the silliest. It swerves from goofy to ghastly so deftly and so often that you can’t always tell which is which.
This is a familiar (and hardly unwelcome) paradox for fans of the Coens. Ever since “Blood Simple,” the brothers have tended to treat whimsy and fatalism as sides of the same coin. The jokes that the universe plays on hapless human creatures may be cruel, but they’re also funny, and the Coens are skilled and wily metaphysical pranksters. The hangings, shootings, scalpings and other grim ends awaiting the hapless cowboys, prospectors and wagon-train pioneers in this anthology of western tales are incidents of mortal slapstick. Death is a hilarious punch line until it happens to you.
And sometimes even then. In the first episode — there are six in all, presented as if they were chapters in a handsomely illustrated old clothbound volume — the title character, played by a grinning Tim Blake Nelson, takes the prospect of his own demise in stride, as he does everyone else’s. There must be an afterlife, this cheerful killer surmises, since there are so many songs about it, one of which he sings as he ascends heavenward.
Known (among other nicknames) as the San Saba Songbird, Buster rides the dusty range strumming a black guitar, a Gene Autry with a murderous streak. His adventures — shootouts, bar fights and poker hands punctuated by musical numbers and bouts of genial, straight-to-camera philosophizing — set the tone for what follows.
Some recent Westerns like to delve into the political and ethical implications of the tradition, seeking to balance the demands of mythic resonance and historical authenticity. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is defiantly not one of those. The movie pays tribute to some classics of the studio era, and also blows raspberries in the direction of earnest contemporary oaters like “Hostiles,” “The Revenant,” “Meek’s Cutoff” and “The Hateful Eight.” Genre for the Coens is not a church or an archive; it’s a playroom.
And yet it’s always a mistake to take their frivolity at face value. They are serious not in spite of their facetiousness but by means of it. Even as “Buster Scruggs” is more frolicsome than, say, “No Country for Old Men” or “Inside Llewyn Davis,” it’s also in its way as haunting as either of those films.
Aesthetic pleasure has always occupied a crucial place in the Coen universe. They take evident delight in the mechanics of screenwriting and filmmaking — flaunting their ingenious wordplay, profligate storytelling and nimble editing (under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) — and also ensure that art, both lofty and popular, is integral to the experience of their characters.
Entertainment is poor compensation for the brute fact of mortality, but it’s what we have. And so Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), a young woman on the Oregon Trail whose brother has died and whose own survival prospects are precarious, stops to giggle at the antics of a colony of prairie dogs. A crusty prospector (Tom Waits), digging for an elusive pocket of gold in a pristine mountain valley, sings a wistful ballad, as does a gentlemanly bounty killer (Brendan Gleeson) during a tense stagecoach ride.
People tell stories and jokes and engage in mock-learned debates — not to arrive at any solutions but to pass the time between now and the grave. Eloquence, in Coen territory, is its own reward, even if it isn’t always appreciated. In “Meal Ticket,” the grimmest and cruelest of these yarns, a man without limbs, known as Hamilton, the Wingless Thrush (Harry Melling), is carted around by a grizzled impresario (Liam Neeson) and made to perform feats of elocution amid the mud and dust of remote frontier settlements.
The texts he recites — including Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” the story of Cain and Abel, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, the Gettysburg Address — are perhaps included to deliver some sly commentary on brutality, mutability or the vanity of human ambition. They also seem like plausible staples of the popular literary canon in late-19th-century America. Which isn’t to say that masterworks of poetry and prose were necessarily held sacred then, any more than they are now. Hamilton’s fate can be taken as a parable of the vagaries of the cultural marketplace. Not to spoil anything, but “Meal Ticket” is basically “Inside Llewyn Davis” with a talented chicken in the Bob Dylan role.
And “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which will make its way to the Netflix streaming platform on Nov. 16 after a week in theaters, can be thought of as a Coen brothers concept album. It works just fine in sequence, but some tracks — the one with James Franco as a dumb bank robber, for instance — only need to be played once. Others invite a specific needle drop: Kazan’s expression of surprise when she receives a marriage proposal; her awkward conversations with Bill Heck; her utterly natural delivery of the word “apothegm”; Waits stealing eggs from an owl’s nest and then putting all but one of them back.
The last chapter, called “The Mortal Remains,” is the deepest cut, the one that might send you back to the beginning, in search of hidden meanings and buried patterns. Five people on a stagecoach journey converse idly and argue heatedly. A wizened trapper (Chelcie Ross) contends that people are all the same, “like ferrets,” to which a proper lady (Tyne Daly) responds that people can be sorted into two kinds, “upright and sinning.” A Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) maintains that every individual is distinct, the unique product of history and temperament.
Their journey ends not in violent death, as nearly all the other verses of this “Ballad” do, but with something stranger and chillier that casts its shadow on what came before. As if the morbid jokes were really existential riddles all along, and we were only laughing to drown out the terror.