The Ballad of Buster Scruggs movie review: The Coen Brothers’ Western redefines what a Netflix film can be
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Directors - Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast - James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits
Rating - 4.5/5
Besides Quentin Tarantino, no other filmmaker has done more for the preservation of the Western than the Coen Brothers. Others have tried - and some of them have even succeeded - but very few of them can drum up excitement for one quite like the Coens.
Even their films that aren’t Westerns have elements of the Western in them - films like Blood Simple or Fargo or O Brother... Their love for the Old West, the unforgiving simplicity of life back then, and the uncomplicated morality of its characters, is palpable in every frame of their movies, from No Country of Old Men - the best modern day Western of all time - to True Grit - one of their rare blockbusters.
Watch the Ballad of Buster Scruggs trailer here
Their latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is perhaps their attempt to articulate this fondness to a crowd that is gradually losing interest in the genre. Originally intended as an anthology series on Netflix, the Coens - very late in the day - decided to edit it down into a feature film. The only reason I can think of as to why they’d do this is so that they could avoid having the blemish of a television show in their filmography. As with Tarantino, their legacy is of vital importance to them, and they must feel the need to maintain a level of synchronicity. The result is six short films - ranging between 15 and 20 minutes - that feel like both an introduction and a love letter to the genre.
There are, of course, threads that weave in and out of the six episodes in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; characters might not recur but themes certainly do. All but one story - the last one - ends in violent death. Each story feels unique, yet cut from the same cloth. These are six tales from the American Frontier, six tales of violence and vengeance, irony and existence, survival and betrayal.
Several characters in these stories are shot in the back - by man, by nature, and in the case of one poor soul, quite literally. These are stories about gold diggers and impresarios and trailblazers - before these terms began to be abused to satisfy the egos of undeserving men.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs begins with a book - one of those decadent old ones, the sort that Larry McMurtry writes; lavishly illustrated and romantically rustic. A hand approaches. A page is flipped. And we’re invited to spend time in the Coens’ world, a world where a buffoonish cowboy can sprout angel wings and fly into heaven, and this could be followed almost immediately by the sight of a quadriplegic reciting Ozymandias.
The titular Buster Scruggs appears in just one of the six chapters - the first - and has nothing to do with any of the other segments. In fact, each of the six chapters is an ode to different kinds of Westerns - the tone switches from loud farce to existential satire, from dramatic thriller to dark comedy.
And like the lens through which they see these different chapters, their filmmaking changes, too. Some stories are dense with their trademark poetic dialogue, and others are near silent. My favourite cinematographer in the world, Bruno Delbonnel, filling in for their regular collaborator, the great Roger Deakins, seems to have been left to his own devices. The result is a work of such stark beauty, sprinkled with such wonderfully stylised vistas and such composed closeups, that you can’t help but pause the film every two minutes, just to admire the prettiness of it all. And my favourite composer, Carter Burwell, writes music that can be grand one moment, and cheeky the next.
It’s a terrific example of just how masterfully the Coens can alter the mood of their piece - we can go from garish silliness to morbid horror in the span of minutes, and often in the same segment. This is particularly evident in the third chapter, starring Liam Neeson and Harry Melling (Dudley from the Harry Potter series), as a travelling act whose fortunes turn as they venture into remote mountain territory. With dwindling finances and a businessman’s brain, Neeson’s character makes a chilling decision at the end that sort of encapsulates the brutal hilarity of the film and acts as a metaphor for the dying genre itself. Shiny new distractions will always come along; the old must always make way for the new.
The Coens make impeccable use of the same dramatic irony in chapter five, starring Zoe Kazan as The Girl Who Got Rattled - a title that seems almost cruel, paired with the knowledge of what happens in the story. Rarely does a character manage to turn the tables on what fate has in store for them. In fact, it happens only once, in chapter four.
The final segment, however, can either be viewed as an abstract summation of everything that has come before, or an encore. It’s sort of like the opening scene of A Serious Man - the one about the dybbuk.
Clearly, this sort of creative freedom is rare to find these days. We often talk about how Netflix has redefined the romantic comedy, how it has become the go-to place for true crime, but we never mention the public service they’ve done by producing Godless, and now The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It’s fitting then, that with it, the Coens have redefined the Netflix movie itself.