The new Coen Brother’s film offers an anthology of six tales from the Western frontier, typically defined by a competing impulse between the droll and the dark.
The first time I took in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ was at home on the modest screen of my laptop. Over the following week I returned it to it three times in various places, on screens of various dimensions. Such is the virtue of the Coen Brother’s new film — an anthology of six short stories set in the American West, launched on Netflix alongside a limited theatrical release — it gets better the more it is revisited.
The film’s opening tale follows the crooning cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) as he rides, guitar and horse in tow, along the dusty plains and escarpments of the Old West. If we might have found ourselves mistaking his campness for sentimentality we are soon assured otherwise as we see him shoot his way, with cartoonish, gunslinging prowess, through various desert towns and their saloons. At one point, during one of his nod-to-camera monologues, Blake Nelson offers the audience an explanation, “things have a way of escalating here in the West.” By the first tale’s parabolic conclusion it is clear the line serves as a maxim for the stories to come.
What follows is ‘Near Algodones’, featuring James Franco as a debonair bank-robber who is met with the kind of cosmic bad-luck we saw in the Coen’s ‘A Serious Man’. Every time he manages to escape justice he is soon bound back into its clutches. The third tale, and the one I found myself drawn to most on subsequent re-viewings, stars Liam Neeson as a traveling impresario, the model of an early-era capitalist traversing the West. The show he puts on is based entirely upon the performance of his legless, armless assistant, played brilliantly by Harry Melling (best known as Dudley in the Harry Potter films), who recites a selection of poems and monologues to increasingly diminishing crowds only to be deemed disposable — and with a sinister smile eventually disposed of — by his tight-fisted boss.
Next, we find ourselves in a picturesque valley complete with gently meandering stream. Before long, a wizened gold-prospector (Tom Waits) imposes himself on the natural surroundings, at first only probing the top soil but eventually tearing up the whole mountain side. Again, the Coens show someone in competition not only with nature but with his fellow man. As the tale pirouettes towards its final moments we get the sense that the true outrage stems from a perverse commitment to the Protestant work ethic: why should any man profit off the work of somebody else?
The penultimate tale is the longest and the most conventional. Its romance becoming the focus for the most genuinely heartfelt moments of the film. Once again, there is a brutal twist in the story’s closing seconds. The sixth and final tale plays out with all the absurdity of a Samuel Beckett drama. We follow the interactions of five characters in the confines of a horse-drawn coach on the way to ‘Fort Morgan’. The looming presence of death that has haunted all of the stories soon comes to the fore and the film closes with the most metaphysical, and obvious, of all its twists and turns.
The filmmaking itself is classic Coens. The stories are impeccably written with plenty of the sharp, droll dialogue we have come to expect, whilst also carrying some of the brevity of Ethan Coen’s lesser-known poetry and short stories. This is a depiction of the West in its most basic terms — it is a place of lawlessness and brutality, a reflection of a nation’s earliest and strongest impulses: extend, control and preserve.
Speaking of capitalist impulses, anyone following Netflix’s strategy over the past three years will be aware that the company has been keen to establish itself not only as the leading streaming platform but as a premier content producer too. However, none of Netflix’s so-called ‘prestige’ titles have as of yet managed to capture a major award, or indeed the major award (Best Picture), something Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos is apparently intent on doing. The Coen Brothers are as effective an Oscar bait as one could imagine. For those purists who might be concerned what Netflix means for the cinematic experience, ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ should ease their worries. In this case, there is something great about how the film can be consumed anywhere you please. I found myself pausing mid-film to read bits of the text that appear in the pages of the book that frames each story and I was able to rewatch it three times in a week rather than wait for DVD release. Of course, it is worth mentioning that as an anthology ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is especially suited to being taken in over repeat viewings and digested at home, on a laptop, in a way that other films might not be.
A better test will be Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Roma’ that has Oscar buzz and is streamable via Netflix in the UK on the 14th of December. Roma, which is made entirely in Spanish and shot in black and white, could struggle to hold the attention of audiences on a laptop screen in the way that the Coen’s have managed so convincingly. The fate of the cinematic experience remains to be seen.