2018 | DIR. JOEL & ETHAN COEN | STARRING TIM BLAKE NELSON, LIAM NEESON, JAMES FRANCO, TOM WAITS, ZOE KAZEN, BRENDAN GLEESON | RUNNING TIME: 133-MINUTES
And yet thank God for services like Netflix, which have given independent filmmakers and auteurs a platform to flex their artistic muscle. With the large multiplex cinemas being overrun by big-budget dreck there's little room for the little guys. Without the colossal marketing budgets of the major studios there's zero interest from exhibitors in giving screen time to unconventional filmmakers, and those big movie-houses that were once considered a place of cinematic worship are now mega factories of rubbish.
Which brings me to THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, a new anthology film from Joel and Ethan Coen, which does for the western genre what Creepshow did for horror. Comprised of six unrelated stories the film presents itself as a storybook, and with the turn of its pages we are treated to all new chapters, each recounting entertaining and unusual chronicles.
The first story is the titular The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, starring Timothy Blake Nelson as an intrepid outlaw. True to form the Coens set the tone of their film with this hugely entertaining narrative, as told through the words of Buster Scruggs himself. With a guitar in hand he sings his way across the west, shooting whosoever dares question his integrity. It is a whimsical and graphically violent slice of genre, which not only represents the Coen aesthetic but also forewarns the viewer of a highly unconventional journey ahead.
From here we are given five more stories to varying effect, but all depicting alternative tropes of the western genre. James Franco stars as an unlucky bank robber who finds himself at the gallows more than once in Near Algodones. Liam Neeson is an aged impresario in search of a new act in Meal Ticket. Tom Waits is an ol' timer prospector on the cusp of striking gold in All Gold Canyon. Zoe Kazan is a female traveler with an uncertain future in The Gal Who Got Rattled, and Brendan Gleeson is one of two reapers amongst three other passengers travelling in a stagecoach at night in The Mortal Remains.
Adding to the huge ensemble is Stephen Root, Clancy Brown, Harry Melling, Tyne Daly, Jonjo O'Neill and Chelcie Ross amongst many others. They contribute to a massive cast, fit for an audacious and unsuspecting western adventure such as this.
The Coens are no strangers to the genre, having previously directed No Country For Old Men and True Grit. Other films of their such as Fargo, Raising Arizona and The Man With No Name have also transferred many tropes of the western genre into contemporary settings, as have – come to think of it – so many of their titles. And now with THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS there comes a sense of finality. It could be that by combining six different interpretations of the western they have fulfilled their desire to explore the genre. The mashing of styles not only makes for an audacious and captivating experience but also feels like the closing of a door. Who knows? We'll see.
The only notable disappointment of their latest film is the absence of a theatrical presentation. And with Netflix's stringent production requirements there is also a new sterile quality to their image. However, with a new platform to present their work on they have been granted the freedom to be as outrageous and subversive as they please. This is the beauty of streaming services, where originality and audaciousness is embraced. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is certainly a bold and fearless piece of filmmaking and whether or not it has enticed the Coen Brothers enough to commit another film to it, remains to be seen. I imagine that they will use Netflix for their more experimental endeavours, reserving their malleable, less eccentric features for theatrical release.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (… and other tales of the American frontier) is a wonderful collection of quirky campfire tales, told with confidence and performed with authority. It has the Coen stamp all over it and serves as a nostalgic celebration of the classic storytelling, reminiscing those times of old when Cowboys & Indians were the stuff of legend, free from retrospective political correctness. They have delivered an absolute winner and hopefully the first of more Netflix-driven instalments.