STARTING life as what was to be a multi-part Netflix series, the incomparable Coen brothers have decided to conflate their elongated saga of the Old West into what is an uneven but hugely enjoyable campfire story experience that couldn’t be made by anyone else.

Essentially it’s an old storybook told on film, separated into six parts, each an individual story of eccentric, thoroughly Coen brothers characters, played by everyone from James Franco (as an ill-fated bank robber) to Tom Waits (as a determined gold prospector).

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It follows them as they get caught up in adventures, mishaps and escapades that feel like they could have happened in some form but have been exaggerated into legend over the years.

It’s a portmanteau of the Coens’ traits as much as of stories; the traveling surrealism of O Brother, Where Art Thou?; the slapstick shock-value violence of Burn After Reading; the eccentricity of The Hudsucker Proxy; the wackiness of Raising Arizona; and the tragicomedy of Inside Llewyn Davis. But simply coasting on past glories is far from this particular song sheet.

Some of the segments are stronger than others, but even its lesser swathes offer small pleasures brought to life by typically sharp dialogue and likable performances. The handling of the switch between jet-black comedy, wide-eyed sentimentality and thought-provoking morality gives it a rich through line.

The highlight is the opening segment which gives the film its name, a wonderfully peculiar ride along with the eponymous cowboy (played by repeated Coen collaborator Tim Blake Nelson) with a sharp eye in a gunfight and a song in his heart. Such is the intricacy of characterisation and consistency of feeling in the filmmakers’ work, it feels like he could be the ancestor of Sam Elliott’s mysterious cowboy stranger from The Big Lebowski.

The filmmaking duo is no stranger to the Old West, having given us one of the best 21st-century Westerns with True Grit. As an aesthetic exercise this is a beautiful piece of work, using the cinematography of their Inside Llewyn Davis collaborator Bruno Delbonnel and music of long-time collaborator Carter Burwell to find moments of painterly beauty that set the scene for the quirky tales.

It’s a minor Coen effort in the grand scheme of things, but this whimsical, offbeat, surprising, beautifully self-aware and strangely affecting chronicle is a treat for fans of their work – or a neat introduction for those who may have only tipped their hat to their work in passing.

The film is available on Netflix now