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Tom Shillue

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Coen brothers’ ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ evokes great John Ford films

3.5 stars (out of four)

I wish I had seen this earlier because I’ve already cast my votes for the Critics’ Choice awards. I would have voted for this as one of the best films of the year. It’s the Coen brothers, and count me as Coen brothers skeptical, since I was not a great fan of “Fargo.”

But this film is flat-out remarkable. I hate to say it, I’m kind of eager to see it again. It’s their tribute to the classic western with a Coen brothers spin. They previously made a very fine version of “True Grit.” That worked, but plenty of their films don’t work for me.

This one is just magnificent. It’s six different little short films. You start out the way they sometimes do in old films, opening a book bound in leather. It’s called “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and it has a cattle skull on the cover.

Then there are six standalone films and each one is shocking in how compelling they are. Warning, warning, warning, this is Rated R. There is some truly horrific violence and shocking imagery, but the Old West was a violent place and this is a dark view of the American frontier.

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The middle segment of the film stars Tom Waits as a lone prospector who is the middle of this incredible gorgeous valley looking for gold, and he’s talking to the mountain. It shows the tedious process of digging and panning and looking for gold when his only company is a mule and an owl who flies overhead.

They’re classic western tall tales. The darkest of the dark tall tales involves Liam Neeson playing a drunk, silent, barely conscious guy, who is travelling through these frontier mining towns and saloons, displaying a British one-time actor, who’s lost his arms and legs.

Buster Scruggs himself is a singing cowboy played by Tim Blake Nelson, in a segment that is very funny and dark. Then there’s the tale with Zoe Kazan, playing an unmarried woman who’s travelling with her brother on a wagon train trying to Oregon. That film comes so close to evoking the spirit and camera work and action of the great John Ford movies. It’s just wonderful to watch.

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The filmmaking is so dazzling in this. Now, do you come out with song in your heart? No, but you come out with some appreciation of how heroic and dark and twisted and brutal some of these frontier encounters were.

Even though this film is very late in the process, it will get and should get some award attention, at the very least for Best Original Screenplay.

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