If it’s on Netflix does it count as TV?
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was supposed to be Joel and Ethan Coen’s big foray into TV. If auteurs as accomplished and particular as the Coen brothers can “slum it” in TV, then that’s it, it’s permission for any holdouts to get into the Netflix business (except maybe Christopher Nolan).
But what was supposed to be a six-part miniseries morphed into a movie, an anthology of six short stories cut into one two-hours-and-20 minutes feature, streaming now.
So let’s call it a halfway commitment to TV, with the movie entering Netflix’s increasingly bulgy library of original films.
The Coens have said that the anthology format of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was inspired by Italian films from the 1960s where different directors would make works with a similar theme, presented side-by-side.
If there’s a running theme through the six stories in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it’s a rather nihilistic one, a belief that the American frontier is a lawless purgatory where morality is negotiable and life is disposable.
The western is a genre familiar to the Coens, most notably with True Grit and, to a lesser extent, No Country for Old Men, two cinematic treasures that both pays homage to its predecessors but also brings something new to the stable.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs starts off its first short, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, with the Coen-iest shot you’d expect — frequent collaborator Tim Blake Nelson as the eponymous Buster, riding on a horse against a mesa backdrop and strumming a guitar.
Buster is the fastest gunslinger around them parts and he’s also pretty good with a little ditty.
The next story, “Near Algodones”, is probably the shortest of the collection, featuring James Franco as a would-be bank robber.
Liam Neeson and Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter movies) are the leads in “Meal Ticket”, about a limbless travelling thespian orator and his companion/business partner.
Tom Waits plays a gold prospector who comes upon a lush, green valley, in search of a lucky find in “All Gold Canyon” and Zoe Kazan leads “The Gal Who Got Rattled” in the story about a young woman heading west to Oregon in a wagon train.
The last story, “The Mortal Remains”, is probably the most wry, featuring Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, Jonjo O’Neill and Chelcie Ross as five mostly strangers sharing a carriage across the country when matters of sin and righteousness come to a darkly funny head.
Most of the stories run about 20 minutes, with “The Gal Who Got Rattled” clocking in at about 40 minutes.
It’s not clear if the Coens ever wrote full scripts for the stories as miniseries episodes because a couple of them would’ve been hard to develop into longer chapters, with one or two fleeting ideas to carry them.
The quality is inconsistent across the six stories but the two final ones are both wonderful and captivating, and exactly what you want from the Coens.
While others would’ve worked beautifully over 50 or 60 minutes — I would’ve loved more of the clever banter of “The Mortal Remains ” but maybe the longing to know what happens next at the end of it is exactly what the Coens wanted from its audience — it was just a taster to get you thinking.
The performances here, as short as they are, are also a joy to watch — Kazan, Waits, Rubinek and Stephen Root in particular. And anytime Gleeson is going to sing a folk song is a plus.
Director of photography Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is varied and gorgeous — whether it’s a bright, promising paradise in Tom Wait’s story or dark and foreboding in the “The Mortal Remains” chapter — but it doesn’t have the same rich texture and panache of Roger Deakins’ work with the Coens in True Grit, No Country for Old Men or O Brother Where Art Thou which had similar milieux.
The Netflix release for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs could very well work in its favour. You could devour all six stories at once and there’s certainly enough of a thematic or tonal identity across six distinct narratives to do it, but you could also watch a couple at a time, with the streaming platform’s technology saving your place for when you next want to return.
The film is an intriguing experiment for the Coens and it’s one that’s very rewarding for the viewer.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is streaming now on Netflix.