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Joel and Ethan Coen have, in their long career as the most interesting and probably best American-born filmmakers alive, dabbled in damn near every genre that a filmmakers in the last 30 years could possibly get away with dabbling in, but in some way it feels like their heart has always belonged to the Western. Their first two films, the 1984 crime drama Blood Simple and the 1987 crime comedy Raising Arizona, both draw heavily on Western iconography in their sandy Arizona settings; their 2007 Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men is a modern-dress Western in all but name; 1998's The Big Lebowski has its nameless wandering cowboy narrator and 2016's Hail, Caesar! has its tacky singing cowboy B-movie actor serving as the film's moral center and single genuinely decent human being. Only once, though, have they made a forthright, legitimate Western in the form of 2010's True Grit, which has the very dispiriting distinction of also being one of the few Coen films I merely like, rather than wholeheartedly love.

Now, on Netflix's dime, the brothers seem to be making up for lost time. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn't just another experiment in the Western genre; it's an experiment in all the Western genres. For we have here before us a six-part anthology film, with each segment plucking up some different element of Western cinema or prose fiction: a singing cowboy comedy, a Jack London-style tale of a man in the wilderness (adapted from a Jack London story, no less), a wagon train romance. When necessary, they combine them, which is how we get a "cross-section of humanity on a stagecoach" story that doubles as a "apocalyptic fantasy of the West as literally Hell" story, absolutely irresistible catnip if you are, like me, someone who considers both John Ford and Cormac McCarthy among your favorite artists in their respective media in the 20th Century. And the framework of the anthology is yet another kind of Western fiction: the stories are pitched as being the collected folk tales in a handsome volume titled, in full, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier, with Color Plates, an homage to the sort of lovely keepsake given to an imaginative Eastern boychild sometime in the early 1900s.

The result is certainly not a film that wants for ambition. The longest of all Coen features, at 132 minutes, it is also quite possibly their most far-reaching: "a treatise on every incarnation of Western fiction in the last 130 years" is already a big enough job, and in watching it, it seems obviously to be much more "a compendium of human attitudes towards death, as well as the most direct statement of our, the Coens', overall feelings about humanity and morality, as filtered through Western iconography", which is of course bigger still. Given the looming status of the Western in American pop culture (it is the closest to a genuine mythology that we have in the United States), using it as the vessel for an all-encompassing study of human beings seems pretty much exactly right.

That all being said, it's still an anthology film, and like almost every anthology film on the books, it has its ups and downs. There's not one single down I'd say is so weak that it crosses over into "bad"; the Coens are insanely talented craftsmen who employ insanely talented collaborators and have an easy time assembling insanely talented casts, and even at Buster Scruggs's very weakest, it has ideas worth grappling with and powerful emotions to deal with and images worth clipping out and framing. Besides, the best of its episodes are right up there with the best thing the writer-directors have ever put together, and I'd say that best is probably the first, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" itself: it is pure Coens, a comic romp assembled with cartoon logic, a frightfully intuitive sense of how movies work, gorgeous dialogue performed flawlessly by wonderful characters actors, and punishing, nihilistic, brutal violence. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a singing cowboy, sort of the dark mirror version of Hail, Caesar!'s guileless, warm Hobie: instead of simple, dogged humanism, he offers a simple, dogged pragmatism that seems to embody the Coens' own worldview and feelings about the career-long charge of smug misanthropy that has greeted virtually every single one of their features. He's no misanthrope, he promises, he just expects the worst of people so he's not disappointed when gets it, and anyway it's pleasant to sing songs.

As far as I'm concerned, Buster - and Nelson's delectable performance thereof, offering a thick Yosemite Sam drawl to add a charge to the screenplay's direct-address dialogue - immediately joins the list of the Coens' great naïve philosophers: Raising Arizona's H.I. McDunnogh, Fargo's Marge Gunderson, The Big Lebowski's Dude, No Country's Ed Tom Bell. Except that unlike any of them, he's also an accomplished killer of men, as it turns out, which is the pivot around which "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" turns: this immensely silly, flippant comedy of dumb visual gags (a horse nodding its head in time to the trite cowboy song "Cool Water"; a human-shape cloud of dust; a shot from the inside Buster's guitar, complete with muted, fuzzy sounds), as goofy as anything from the Coens' early, ludicrous phase, is also a depiction of the amorality and savagery of a world in which anybody can die more or less at random, generally for the most trashy of reasons. It's been clear for a while that No Country inaugurated a new, grimmer phase of Coen films, in which the world is so arbitrary and hopeless that you had damn well better laugh if you want to keep from collapsing into a pit of neurotic terror; Buster Scruggs generally is an apotheosis of this, and "Buster Scruggs" specifically is, with its intrusion of almost surreal grotesquerie into the most openly wacky thing the filmmakers have put together since 1994's The Hudsucker Proxy (if we are only counting the good films) or 2004's The Ladykillers (if we are counting the bad ones).

The film will never been so brightly comic again, though four of its six segments are at least mostly funny, albeit in the sort of nasty, bitter way that A Serious Man is a non-stop hilarious comedy (and indeed, out of all seventeen Coen films preceding this one, A Serious Man seems to be the most effective comparison; Buster Scruggs kind of feels like what you'd get if the dybbuk scene from the start of that movie was the model for an entire film, rather than just an elusive, phantasmagorical opening gambit, and both films end with a feeling of onrushing, unstoppable Fate). Sadly, the film will also never again have the perfection of "Buster Scruggs", though it comes close a few times. Again, the anthology format lends itself to ups and downs, and only the moody, heavily atmospheric, blatantly symbolic final episode "The Mortal Remains", grabbed me as hard as "Buster Scruggs", in part by being its total opposite. Instead of death coming coming as a random shock, death feels like the only possible endpoint for a story that begins at dusk and follows the crawling blue-green shadows of a desert night as it covers the faces of a group of travelers (including the best overall cast in the film: Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek with a wild French accent, Chelcie Ross, and my favorite of the bunch, Royal Shakespeare Company member Jonjo O'Neill) riding in a stagecoach with a nameless driver and a corpse strapped to the roof. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who also shot the brothers' dreamy 2013 folk music odyssey Inside Llewyn Davis) blasts "The Mortal Remains" full of shadows and gloom, a vivid and vicious contrast to the water blues and almost pastel desert hues of "Buster Scruggs" (the movie tests the limits of digital cinematography almost too much, and I hope the Coens are able to go back to shooting on celluloid film next time, but it still looks pretty damn gorgeous most of the time). Tonally, visually, rhythmically, and performatively, the first and last segments bookend the film by being two extremes, and the descent from one to the other covers the entirety of the film's epic look at how readily human beings can be destroyed.

The four episodes in between vary in quality as much as in mood, though never without compensations. My least favorite is the third part, "Meal Ticket", and even that has appeal as a quasi-mystical fable about a man who rarely speaks, played by Liam Neeson in a nearly feral mode, who brings a young man with neither arms nor legs (Harry Melling) from to town, reciting great English-language oratory to dwindling audiences. The fatigued, wintry tone of the piece, and the caustic wit of its final shot, help redeem what's kind of a blunt, one-note story, and it's surely difficult to shake its impact. And it's only up from there. The second segment, "Near Algodones" (the Italian Western homage out of the lot) has a delicious Stephen Root performance and some excellent use of wide open negative space in the compositions to offset its jokey climax and James Franco's anachronistic performance; the third, "All Gold Canyon", has eye-watering rich colors that perfectly evoke the lust fullness of unspoiled landscapes in the bright summer sun, as well as the always-welcome presence of an insanely grizzled Tom Waits, to compensate for its rather plain story, derived from London, who is by no means a natural fit for the Coens. The fifth segment, "The Gal Who Got Rattled" (based on a story by Stewart Edward White) is by far the longest chapter and it doesn't do enough to earn that (it also doesn't benefit from comparisons to the 2010 Meek's Cutoff, the be-all and end-all of contemporary wagon train stories), though Zoe Kazan's performance as the titular gal is excellent, and the relatively lingering pacing serves to do great work in making the labor of travel in the empty West feel truly oppressive and unfathomably big. It also does manage to have the most complicated character psychology, not really much of a priority in most of these segments to be sure, as well as leavening its violence with a humane sadness, rather than the dry irony common to all the other segments.

Taken all in all - and despite the discredited rumors that this started life as a miniseries, it's clearly meant to be watched as a unitary object, if only because of the strong effect of playing the first and last stories against each other - The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a potent depiction of human fortitude and human moral ugliness walking arm in arm. It's not friendly, even if parts of it are funny as hell; it sets out its stakes very early, with Buster offering a morality of survival and pragmatism, in the caricature of old-timey dialogue he's given (one of the small pieces of genius: there are at least three different flavors of equally improbable Olde-Fashioned Western Patois across the six segments), and it never subverts that initial statement of intent. To be sure, the cinematography, wide range of comedy, stately Carter Burwell score (derived in large part from traditional Protestant hymns and cowboy songs - a direct John Ford homage if ever I heard one), and the superb cast all combine to make the film enormously pleasurable even at its bleakest. That's the lifeblood of the Coens' filmography of course, and let there be no doubt: inconsistent and flawed as it may be, this is pure, uncut Coen brothers, with a little bit of just about everything they've ever done hiding inside one or more of the chapters. It's already being tagged as "minor Coen" in some circle, but it functions almost as a summing-up of every major concern they've explored in 17 films over 34 years - what in God's name could be minor about that?