Joel and Ethan Coen (who, full transparency, are my all-time favorite filmmakers) have made a career making offbeat movies in offbeat settings with offbeat characters. They are known for the bizarre (Raising Arizona), the deeply contextual (Barton Fink), the dark (No Country for Old Men), the pointless (The Big Lebowski), the silly (Hail, Caesar!) and the deep (A Serious Man), but, mainly, they are known for movies that blend elements. Drama, comedy, western, musical, thriller, horror, heist, fantasy and action are all genres that the Coens have mastered—sometimes all within the same movie. So, it would make total sense that they would create an anthology movie, because if you look at each Coen movie as a fully-realized novel, then the only literary world they still need to conquer would be that of the short story. An anthology film would allow the Coens to blend all the elements into one two-hour experience. And that’s exactly what they’ve done with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
There haven’t been many successful anthology movies. I struggle to come up with an anthology movie that even registered on the critical or commercial radar. The ones I can think of are Cloud Atlas, Four Rooms, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Coffee and Cigarettes and Night on Earth. Some consider Pulp Fiction an anthology movie, but, for me, it has much more connective tissue to be considered completely separate stories. But The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is six completely independent stories, the one thing they have in common is their setting: the Old West. And, boy, does that setting serve the Coens.
What also serves the Coens is the unique and very modern distribution of this movie. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the first Coen brothers movie that is released on Netflix the same day it is released into movie theatres. Which means all of us can enjoy a new Coen brothers movie in the comfort of our own home on the first day it comes out. Normally, I am one to always support going to the movie theatre, but the rising profiles of both Netflix and Amazon as movie producers and distributors have changed the entire landscape of movie consumption. While I am worried about how the new normal may affect the visual art form that I love so much, I can’t help but appreciate the benefits. While some movies, probably most, will always benefit from being seen on the big screen, there are some others that may work just as well at home. (Caveat: when I say “at home,” I NEVER mean on your phone or tablet. Please don’t EVER watch a movie for the first time on any screen smaller than 45 inches. We have to draw the line somewhere.) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is just the type of movie that works in a home viewing experience. While it does have the usual Coen visual flair (and the stunning cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel), it is still effective on a smaller-than-movie-theatre screen because the multiple stories don’t require a total, two-hour immersion in a story or world. And, in this Netflix and short-attention-span-dominated world, if making a bunch of shorter movies that are available to stream will open up the Coens to a whole new audience, how can I not be all for it.
I have always loved short stories. I don’t think I love short stories because they are faster to read or take less concentration, but because of the thing most people don’t realize about them: sometimes they really are about nothing. Yes, I know that a lot of short stories are fully-realized stories with a point or a purpose, but my favorite short stories were always the ones that introduced you to a world or to characters just to let you be with them, with no need (or time) to unfurl a whole story. You get a short amount of time to engage and when it’s over, you take what you want from it. Such is how I experienced The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Because of the shortened format—six stories in two hours—you are often thrust right into the action, introduced to the characters with little backstory and take in a brief cinematic experience and then it’s over. For these six stories written and directed by the Coens, their brevity is part of their resonance. And, because it’s the Coens, each story offers its own level of bizarre, deep, twisted and funny. It’s just up to you to figure out which is which.
And the Old West is the perfect setting for short stories by the Coens. There were no rules and, in order to survive, you had to live by your wits. Violence was a way of life and humans were motivated by the simplest of things: money and/or survival. Each of the stories in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a snapshot of a different experience, some incredibly dark, some touching and some weirdly funny. The Coen sensibility is on full display in these stories, from the macabre to the bizarre. Most of the stories may make you ask, “what was the point of that?” and that, my friends, is exactly the point.
For those of you frustrated by and with the lack of any substantial story, there is the ensemble of performances, from start to finish, that color in every corner of this experience. There are far too many incredible actors to name them all, but I would be remiss to not mention Tim Blake Nelson and Tom Waits specifically, as they both bring to their respective stories a humor and heart that make their stories rise above the rest. Obviously, some stories are better than others, but what is uniform throughout are the great performances, the gorgeous cinematography and the effective score (by the always-amazing Carter Burwell).
Be warned, though: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has stories that run the gamut from silly and fun to truly dark and disturbing. It wouldn’t be the Coen brothers without a mix of everything. In the end, this is a love story to the Old West and an homage to the convention of short storytelling. While The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may not be up there with my favorite Coen movies, it certainly is valiant in its efforts and definitely deserves to be seen.