Most of the early discussion about the Coen Brothers’ new film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, has centered not on its content but its distribution. Produced by NetFlix, and originally rumored to be a limited series rather than a full-length feature, the film is the first in a series of releases by the streaming platform of films by high-profile directors.
Next up is Alfonso Cuaron’s lavishly received Roma, with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman due in early 2019. Each of these films will get a very limited theatrical release to secure award season eligibility but for the vast majority of viewers, it will be found only on their TV, or God forbid, their iPhone.
Is that the ideal way to watch a major cinematic achievement by some of the art form’s greatest talents? Of course not. But in a studio landscape that increasingly bankrolls reboots and superhero franchises at the expense of original human-focused stories, I applaud NetFlix for providing these films a home.
And had Buster Scruggs received a traditional theatrical release, with the typical parade of trailers and TV commercials, I don’t think it would feel like such a glorious surprise.
Buster Scruggs is an anthology film telling six unrelated stories of the Old West, each set in a unique location and embracing a different aspect of the genre.
Despite early reports that the project was planned as a series of six standalone TV episodes, the Coens insist it was always intended as a film. That makes sense, as each segment builds on the last, with thematic throughlines coalescing into one grand vision.
The title segment kicks things off with a healthy dose of absurdity. Tim Blake Nelson, interestingly one of the few actors here who has been in another Coen Brothers film, plays Buster, a singing cowboy in the Gene Autry mold whose joyful demeanor masks a startling capacity for violence.
The second story, ‘Near Algodones,’ the film’s shortest, stars a winning James Franco as a bank robber with a knack for jumping from frying pans into fires.
Liam Neeson and Harry Melling (best known as Dudley from the Harry Potter films) star in ‘Meal Ticket,’ the film’s darkest chapter. This tale of a traveling impresario and his limbless, poetry-reciting act is a blistering satire of the modern entertainment industry.
‘All Gold Canyon’ is the tale of a prospector digging for “pocket gold” in a pristine meadow. Tom Waits stars in this one-man show that has a lot to say about perseverance and determination but also man’s role in disturbing nature.
The longest segment, ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled,’ features Zoe Kazan as a young woman traveling the Oregon Trail to enter into a marriage arranged by her weaselly brother. She forms a relationship with one of the trail guides, played charmingly by Bill Heck. The Coens aren’t known for writing romances, which makes their deft touch here all the more impressive.
Finally, ‘The Mortal Remains’ closes things out with a foreboding stagecoach ride featuring three passengers with very different views on humanity, and two escorts whose role becomes increasingly metaphysical. In a film in which every chapter deals with death, this segment depicts the final passage quite literally.
Each of these stories both reinforces and deconstructs a different aspect of the western mythology, but the Coen Brothers are up to more than just an exploration of genre. Taken as a whole, Buster Scruggs is a treatise on the randomness and inevitability of death, a subject that has fascinated the Coens for three decades.
Eighteen films into their peerless filmography, the brothers are at the top of their game. The writing, editing, cinematography and sound design here are all top-notch. This might be their darkest film, thematically, but it’s one of the most beautiful to look at. The ensemble cast of known and unknown actors serves the material perfectly, teasing out the wit and pathos in every carefully constructed line.
After two viewings, I count The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as 2018’s best film so far. I slot it at #8 among all Coen Brothers movies, which might seem like faint praise until you consider the masterpieces ahead of it. There is so much to unpack here, though, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it climb higher over time.