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This image released by Netflix shows Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs in a scene from 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,' a film by Joel and Ethan Coen which will have an exclusive run in theaters before becoming available on Netflix's streaming service.Netflix/Netflix via AP

As the title character in the Coen brothers’ new western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Tim Blake Nelson plays an archetypal western hero: a gunslingin’, three-X-whisky-drinkin’, gee-tar playin’, singin’, fourth-wall-breakin’ … well, okay. Maybe Buster Scruggs isn’t at all an archetypal western hero. But The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is far from an archetypal western.

A six-part anthology film based on stories penned by Joel and Ethan Coen over the past quarter-century, Buster Scruggs moves from cartoony comedy to bleak mediation on loss, to Sartrean No Exit-style chamber piece, tracing the collapse of the western (and the West) over a series of sado-comic vignettes. As Buster, Tim Blake Nelson not only lends the film its name, but is also responsible for setting its tone, drawing viewers into the Coens’ singular, typically cockeyed take on the western genre.

“I certainly feel a certain responsibility to Joel and Ethan to help kick the movie off,” says Nelson, over the phone from New York, the morning after Buster Scruggs bowed at the New York Film Festival.

Buster is less a stock character than a mix of a few long-standing clichés: Gene Autry-esque singing cowboy meets John Wayne-ish tough guy, embodied in a Wacky World of Tex Avery-styled lampoon. He seems like a lily-livered pushover, until he draws down and turns a menacing posse into Swiss cheese. "He can be mean,” Nelson explains. “Other people have called him psychopathic – I wouldn’t use that word. As actors, we want to advocate for our characters!”

In Buster Scruggs, and across their extensive filmography, the Coens provide actors like Nelson plenty to advocate for. Nelson first worked with the Coens on the musical-crime-comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, playing dopey small-time crook Delmar O’Donnell. “I owe my whole career to Joel and Ethan putting my ugly mug on screen!” Nelson says with a chuckle and a requisite, distinctly Coens-ish air of self-deprecation. “They give us these astonishing roles that we get to play.”

Buster Scruggs offers plenty of juicy roles for quirkier character actors. Comedian David Krumholtz appears in Buster’s story as an ornery Frenchman. Brendan Gleeson pops up as an Irish undertaker. Stephen Root (another O Brother veteran) devours scenery as a vengeful bank teller. Zoe Kazan plays a lonely-hearted, sharp-witted pioneer adrift in a world of coursing machoism. And Saul Rubinek, of Frasier and Unforgiven fame, rears his head as, well, a different kind of ornery Frenchmen.

The Coens have a way of usefully exploiting these sub-superstar actors, always using them to the best of their abilities. Who can forget Steve Buscemi’s career-making role as the “funny lookin’” criminal in Fargo? Or John Turturro’s turn as the greasy, tongue-flicking bowler named Jesus in The Big Lebowski?

As Nelson puts it, these are “tender” filmmakers (despite their capacity for violence and capricious twists of fate) who are extremely generous to both their actors and their audiences. “As human beings, I don’t know of many people who are warmer, more decent, more caring than Joel and Ethan,” he explains. “They’re never lazy. They’re always giving you something. When you’re watching their movies, you’re watching, all at the same time, an incredibly compelling narrative, gorgeously made in every respect, and then each one has this philosophical undercurrent. They care about life and what it means to be alive.”

Indeed, in Nelson’s view, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a film about mortality, and the myriad ways in which human beings distract themselves from the niggling inevitability of death. It uses the inevitability of death to bring life itself into focus. This, to Nelson, is the gift of the Coens’ filmmaking, and of narrative itself. “Stories are about distracting us from mortality,” he says. “You have a film comprised of six different stories in six different sub-genres in the western genre, all of which deal with mortality.”

Nelson also sees a fatalism inherent in the film, one that runs through the Coens’ entire filmography. As he puts it: “The Coens write movies about how no matter what you do, no matter how well you plan, no matter how good your intentions are, you’re going to get sideswiped and knocked out. It’s essentially folly to try and structure your life by any abiding moral code. Everything is potentially beyond your control: often chaotic, often violent.” This chaos comes to bear immediately on Buster Scruggs, a film that makes comically short (but effective) work of its title character.

But Nelson’s not at all bitter about playing the title character in a movie and being effectively eliminated 20 minutes in – even though he devoted five months to teaching himself the guitar, memorizing dance steps and learning to spin two pistols in unison.

“Who knows?” he says, laughing. “Maybe I’ll twirl pistols in another movie!”

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Nov. 16, the same day it begins streaming globally on Netflix.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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