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Half-fish, half-fowl and altogether inspired, it is a dazzling mosey through the creeks and canyons of the Coenesque, whose scattershot format and by turns bizarre and macabre sense of humour belies a formal ingenuity and surgical control of tone that keeps the viewer perpetually off-guard.
Ballad doesn’t reinvent the Coens’ sardonic, measured aesthetic, but the anthology’s looser structure allows them a friskiness that is welcome from such masterful veterans.
The Coens have given us a hilarious, beautifully made, very enjoyable and rather disturbing anthology of stories from the old west, once planned for television but satisfyingly repurposed for the cinema: vignettes that switch with stunning force from picturesque sentimentality to grisly violence.
Even magnificent scenery like this can get dull if there’s no invention or novelty to proceedings, but fortunately the six tales collected in the dusty old hardback book The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the Wild West, complete with colour plates and tracing paper, are packed with originality, poetry and glorious wit.
It’s effective in a somber way, and as shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, it’s dazzling to look at, a reinvention of classic literature of the old west with a storybook feel.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will be, at best, a charming footnote in the Coens’ career, a project they enjoyed doing, and possibly even more enjoyed turning into a film so they can keep their résumé free of episodic television.
Since the episodes are uneven in quality (though the best of them seize and hold you), you may feel, at moments, that it’s too much of a just-okay thing. Yet The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in its gnarly and ambling way, does justify its existence as a movie.
Part sincere and part smarmy, part amusing and part windy nonsense, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs plays like an old Western-themed vaudeville show featuring six unrelated sketches of drastically differing quality.
"Buster Scruggs” is a singular illustration of what makes the Coen formula so appealing, and a reminder of so many better examples.
Taken individually, there are cherishable moments and performances scattered throughout “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” like so many flecks of gold amid the silt. But as a whole, the film has to be chalked down to a perplexingly minor addition to one of the most beloved cinematic canons of our time.

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