Tomorrow morning, millions of people all over the world are going to have a wonderful gift beamed directly into their living rooms, laptops, and mobile devices. It’s a new era, where the streaming platforms like Netflix really are getting the best of the best to make their content. I’m referring of course to the The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a new western anthology film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
It was originally reported that this was to be a limited series for Netflix, but apparently the six vignettes were always meant to be presented as a whole. Apart from all being in the western genre, the stories do not connect in any direct way. They all feel to be very much in the same world, where the only thing lusher than the landscapes is the language used by the colourful characters who inhabit it, yet the stories themselves are all very different. The tone varies quite a bit between the chapters, from the cartoonish first story to the final allegorical tale, one thing you an always be sure of is the Coens’ trademark dialogue and gallows humour.
The film puts its best foot forward with the story it gets its title from, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) plays the eponymous Buster Scruggs, a song singing, gun slinging scamp who could be a children’s entertainer if he weren’t so busy gunning down rivals. This is the Coen brothers at their most playful, channelling Bugs Bunny and Chuck Jones more than anything else. It’s fifteen minutes of pure giddy delight, feeling like something Capitol Pictures (fictional employer of Barton Fink and Eddie Mannix) might have put out in their prime. This one is over too soon, and definitely leaves you wanting more Scruggs.
The second story, “Near Algodones”, stars James Franco as an outlaw who doesn’t walk the same charmed path that Scruggs seemed to mosey along. The high point in this segment comes courtesy Stephen Root in a memorable appearance as an eccentric clerk who shouldn’t be meddled with. While much less screwball than the “Scruggs” story, this yarn remains pretty firmly in the comedy camp.
“Meal Ticket” is perhaps the most heartbreaking of them all. Liam Neeson plays a man who cares for a limbless thespian as the two travel from town to town, the depleted actor delivering Shakespearean soliloquies so that the two may eek out a living. Harry Melling, best known for playing Harry Potter’s turd of a cousin Dudley, is unrecognizable in this brilliant performance. His scenes delivering lengthy monologues are just as powerful as his moments of silence in between.
“All Gold Canyon” ventures into less chartered territory, literally and figuratively. Tom Waits plays a prospector in a sequence that feels reminicent of the There Will Be Blood opening. Half the running time is like a procedural on gold mining in the old west. While that may sound boring, the grizzled Waits and tranquil scenery provide a nice reprieve from the dangers of city living, albeit briefly.
The penultimate chapter, “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, continues to slow things down in a much more measured narrative, taking more time to situate its characters before getting to the thrust of the story. Zoe Kazan plays a woman following her brother in a caravan heading towards an uncertain future. With its romance, action, and tragedy, this is the most fully realized story of the collection.
Finally, “The Mortal Remains” is like Twilight Zone by way of Stagecoach. Five strangers who share nothing more than a common destination squeezed into a carriage is a familiar western trope, but instead of using it to establish a premise, the Coens’ use it as a means towards an ambiguous finale.
I suspect ranking these stories could become the source of great debate, even within ourselves. Every chapter has its own, unique charm, so that you may have a different favourite every time you watch it. More casual Netflixers brought in my names like Franco and Neeson will likely be disappointed at what is neither a straightforward Western or comedy, but something only the Coen brothers could make. Like most of their films, it will confound and frustrate some, but delight many.
While it’s mind blowing to me that this is basically being given away for free, it’s unfortunate that it means most people won’t get to experience it in the theatre. Bruno Delbonnel(Inside Llewyn Davis, Amélie)’s cinematography and Carter Burwell’s score deserve to be seen on the big screen and heard on loud speakers. But as Ulysses Everett McGill once prophesied, “Everything’s gonna be put on electricity and run on a paying basis. Out with old spiritual mumbo-jumbo, the superstition and the backward ways. We’re gonna see a brave new world where they run everyone a wire and hook us all up to the grid. Yessir, a veritable age of reason – like they had in France. And not a moment too soon…”