Zach Dirksen—Guest Writer
When I heard that Joel and Ethan Coen were making a movie for Netflix, I was excited and nervous. I was excited because I love the Coen’s work. They’ve made some of my favorite films, whether that be the bleak and moving music film Inside Llewyn Davis, the intense neo-western thriller No Country for Old Men, or the outright ridiculous road-trip comedy O Brother Where Art Thou? The Coen Brothers are professionals at engaging the audience with smart writing, outlandish scenarios and some of the most fun characters in film. I had no doubt the movie would be up to their usual standard. I was nervous, however, with the fact it’d be produced by Netflix.
To me, Netflix movies are never as good as Netflix shows. They aren’t marketed well, they don’t seem to draw in big talent and they often got lost quickly in Netflix’s ever-growing catalogue. Sure, I was going to see the Coens’ new movie, but who else would? So, when The Ballad of Buster Scruggs hit Netflix on November 17, I watched it. Two hours after the movie had ended, I wanted to watch it again.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an unconventional piece of cinema. The movie tells 6 individual stories, each set in the Wild West. These stories aren’t connected by characters or a sequence of events, but by theme and framing. The first shot of the movie is a dusty old hardcover book bearing the same title as the movie. The movie is this book in a sense: an omnibus of short stories, each different from the other, but similar enough to warrant being packaged together. The first story, also titled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs tells the story of a cartoonish gunslinger who loves singing just as much as he likes playing poker. The second story depicts a bank robber who finds himself caught in an unfortunate series of events. The third follows a travelling sideshow act that’s losing its audience, while the fourth shows an old prospector searching for gold in a secluded valley. The two final stories of the movie are longest and darkest. The fifth story is about a young woman in a wagon train, beset by challenges she’s completely unequipped to handle. Finally, the movie concludes with 5 travelers in a stagecoach, arguing about the nature of man. At first glance these stories seem incredibly different, but after watching the movie, you realize the stories, different as they may be, flow into each other. The feeling you get from one story sets your mind in a place in which you can enjoy the next one even more. It’s almost like a season of streaming television. It’s a movie made to be binge-watched.
In true Coen Brothers fashion, this movie is a visual marvel. Although not shot by their frequent collaborator Roger Deakins, this film boasts impressive cinematography and color grading. This is due to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who also did tremendous work creating the hazy, muted colors of 1960’s New York in Inside Llewyn Davis. Here, he flexes completely different creative muscles, capturing majestic desert vistas in glorious color. The colors in the last story especially stand out, with the image slowly turning from a sunny yellow to a deep, dark blue as the story inside the stagecoach gets increasingly darker and mysterious.
Another Coen Brothers staple is casting. They tend to populate their movies with big names, and often work with the same actors over multiple movies. This isn’t the case with Buster Scruggs. Sure, we see some popular faces, notably Liam Neeson and James Franco, but many of the standout performances in the film are from actors we either haven’t seen much of, or don’t know at all. There aren’t many “Coen actors” here either. Tim Blake Nelson and Stephen Root take memorable turns, but we really don’t see anyone else we’ve seen before. Regardless, there isn’t a weak performance in the movie. Each character not only acts well, they practically (and in some cases, literally) sing the Coen’s often-thick and hyper-specific dialogue.
I had a really fun time watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It offers the same Coen Brothers fun in a new and innovative package. I definitely recommend it, especially since so many people may not see it otherwise, given Netflix’s marketing tactics. If this review got you interested, go watch it. Better yet, watch it with other people. And if you enjoy it, tell someone else.