The Coen Brothers latest film is their first venture with Netflix, but it feels familiar in so many ways, which may be why it’s nominated for three Oscars this year.
If you know the Coen Brothers (Joel & Ethan Coen) you know there’s usually a certain kind of movie you’re walking into. It’s going to be dark, coupled with some comedy. It will likely be some of the best shots of any film released that year. The score will be noticeable at times, in the right ways. The acting will be superb and at times you’ll get to see an actor in a role you wouldn’t expect. Sometimes the plot will matter and sometimes the film is about more than the plot. Overall it can range from fun to polarizing to dark as hell.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is all of that.
The film is an anthology of six stories, takes place in the wild west, and is all comprised of completely different characters and settings. It begins with singing gunslinger Buster Scruggs, played impeccably by Tim Blake Nelson, and ends with a stagecoach full of unique individuals who discuss the nature of humanity. None of this is surprising coming from the Coen brothers. There are times where some of the vignettes do sort of lull, but overall each one tends to end on a gripping, compelling, and at times dark finale. Each one is worth the wait.
In a way the Coens deconstructed the western with this film. Each of these stories could work as its own individual full-length film, but they wouldn’t be as strong. The shorter runtime for each story helps focus on the important parts, and in turn make the whole experience more entertaining. It still has everything you could ever want from a western: wide shots of plains and mountains, gun fights, a man who dies of dysentery on the trail to Oregon. But it foregoes all the elements that make westerns less appealing (re: drawn out dialogue, long boring takes, etc.).
If you’ve ever enjoyed any of the Coen brothers work, you’re likely to enjoy this film. Or at least a few segments of it. And I’m not casting a wide net here. I specifically mean if you enjoy even one of their films, there’s going to be something you enjoy here. It’s a “best of” for what these two brothers are able to accomplish.
It would be interesting to see if the film would have had major success if it had been given a wide theatrical release. As the cinematography alone is worthy of the big screen. Which is also slightly impressive as this is the Coen’s first film shot on digital.
Honestly, Buster Scruggs didn’t seem too appealing before watching it. But after hearing good word of mouth about the film, and loving most of the cast, it seemed worthy of my time, and I’m not disappointed at all. Even now, I want to go back and rewatch some of my favorite sequences, which is something I don’t usually feel for most Coen brothers films. If nothing else, watch the first 20 minute segment featuring Tim Blake Nelson as the title character. That segment is likely what will bring people back as time goes on.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is currently streaming on Netflix.