The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Netflix has been a bit iffy on delivering good movies. Well, in all honesty, it's been pretty iffy on delivering bad movies as well. It's the perfect platform for delivering b-movies that studios are afraid to take a chance on in theaters, allowing them to get traction they otherwise wouldn't get. It worked for both Bright and Bird Box.
It doesn't help that they have been historically willing to slap together, or grab, almost anything, from slapping the Cloverfield label on a half-baked sci-fi film or signing Adam Sandler to a multi-film deal when it doesn't appear to be 1995 - although Murder Mystery seems to have broken his series of misfires. Still, so far, Netflix has been known for delivering some amazing mini-series and television shows, but the good movies have been few and far between.
That's why I was a bit shocked when I saw the trailer for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It mentioned Joel and Ethan Coen, and my first thought was that this was going to be one of those "from the directors of..." movies, where they use big name directors who barely have an executive producer role to draw an audience into thinking it's a good movie. But, no... written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who are nowhere near the twilight of their career. They have their ups and downs, but new movies from them are still highly anticipated.
Turns out this wasn't just some anomalous failure slagged off on a streaming service to get past audience and critical scrutiny. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is full-on Coen Brothers, with all the dark humor, story-telling and beautiful filmmaking one would expect.
The movie itself is an anthology of unconnected stories, strung together as six short stories in an old-fashioned Western story collection. There is no interwoven them or narration other than the romanticized version of the Old West as presented by Buffalo Bill Cody and classic Western films, subverted in a number of ways.
The first, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs", is about a singin' and shootin' cowboy by that name (Time Blake Nelson), also known as the San Saba Songbird. Unlike most singing heroes he has also left a trail of bodies in his wake over the years. Unfortunately, his song may be reaching its end as he enters the town of Frenchman's Gulch.
"Near Algodones" is about a cowboy (James Franco) who decides to rob the wrong bank, and finds himself at the wrong end of a noose. However, his luck may be changing - just which way is anyone's guess.
An armless and legless performer (Harry Melling) is the "Meal Ticket" for a shady traveling showman (Liam Neeson). Unfortunately, those meals are meager, and times (and audiences) are changing.
A prospector (Tom Waits) finds himself entering the isolated and bucolic "All Gold Canyon", and finding what he desires. Despite the isolation, others may have found him as well.
In "The Girl Who Got Rattled", Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) and Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) are headed to Oregon to begin a new life - new business opportunities for him, possibly a husband for her. Of course, on the Oregon Trail things don't always go as planned, and Gilbert is soon out of this world and Alice penniless. That is, until she catches the eye of wagon guard Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), who proposes to her and means to settle down when they reach their destination. Still, again, things happen on the Oregon Trail, and usually not good things.
Finally, a quintet of riders in a black coach head toward the town of Fort Morgan with "The Mortal Remains" of the latest quarry of a pair of bounty hunters (Jonjo O'Neill and Brendan Gleeson) tied to the roof. While they talk, it becomes apparent that their destination may be a bit more final than they expected.
The problem with most anthology movies (and I am most used to the horror end of this) is that there will be usually one or two standouts and a handful of throwaways. Surprisingly, only "Near Algodones" seems to be underdeveloped. It has some good points, but it really doesn't go anywhere and ends about the time interesting things start to happen. I don't fault the title sequence for being rather short, because it manages a three-act structure within its compact running time and is quite memorable and entertaining - the singing cowboy has always been the hero, and Scruggs soon shows himself as far from being one. I was frightened the musical part may turn out to be cringeworthy, but was sold the moment I heard "Cool Water".
"Meal Ticket" has taken some heat, but it's understandable. It's a bit on the artier side, using the Western background to show how humans can act viciously toward others when their own survival is in question, or when greed rears its ugly head. It's told in a narrative fashion where "The Wingless Thespian" only speaks the lines he has memorized, and what few others are by the old drunk he depends upon. It is probably the biggest downer ending, although "The Girl Who Got Rattled" manages to outdo it. Zoe Kazan does a great job of taking what is at first a meek character and letting her grow once she is out of her brother's shadow. It's by far the longest segment, allowing us to get to know her a bit more than the characters in the other stories, so the end is more effective.
Tom Waits's segment is the most memorable (along with the title one), largely for the gorgeous cinematography and Waits's performance. He even gets to sing a bit, which is always a plus. Once again we are faced with man's greed and violence toward others, but this one is quite satisfying.
The last segment attempts a bit of a horror element, and is probably the slightest next to the second. Still, it does a good job with atmosphere, is a great closing segment and doesn't go full Twilight Zone. Instead it leaves the events open to interpretation.
While The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was released in a few theaters, I'm surprised that the Coens and Netflix didn't try for a larger release. It is a Western, and the way it is made practically guarantees it would barely get beyond an art house audience, but it is beautifully shot. They didn't let the fact that it would mainly be seen all small screens stop them from making it as if it would be on a full screen. Most of this was filmed in Colorado and New Mexico, and the landscape is just as much a star as anyone in the movie. I do have problems with the color filters; I am tired of yellow being overused for desert scenes, blue for colder regions, etc. That's the only lazy filmmaking I see in this, but then my tastes always run to natural lighting, having grown up to a grittier look in many movies.
Length is also a bit of a problem. "The Girl Who Got Rattled", good as it is, could have been trimmed, as could "Meal Ticket". "Near Algodones" could have been left out without hurting the movie one bit.
Finally, it should be said that if you are looking for a true representation of the Wild West, this is not it. It's a modern interpretation of the old pulp stories, Buffalo Bill's tall tales and the movies from the genre's heyday. This ultimately means that this plays more on the history of the actual mythology, rather than anything historical in itself. This may be problematic for some, as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs makes no effort to modernize the position of women or Native Americans within the mythology, opting instead to portray the Old West as a world of tough white males carving out a new frontier. I have read a number of critiques of this movie that take that angle way too much to heart. It's not an endorsement by the Coens or anyone involved of these stereotypes, but rather an unflinching recognition of the fact that these characterizations existed and are part of our folk history at this point, even as we have grown past them.
Whether Netflix wanted to or not they have proven that the movies they show do not have to be the modern equivalent of the direct-to-video films of the '80s and '90s, even taking into account that your average Full Moon production was in many ways better than a number of movies that Netflix has released in the last year. There are name directors, and name actors, willing to make good movies for the service, and this is something they should take to heart as it appears a good portion of their programming may be re-appropriated as every old network and studio rushes to create their own streaming services. They are not SyFy, releasing the umpteenth iteration of some sort of Asylum-produced shark movie. This steps up their game in a major way, leaving them little excuse to keep throwing money at barely watchable garbage.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Time: 133 minutes
Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck
Directors: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen