Netflix seems to be headed in the general direction of movie making on top of everything else. Sure, some of their stuff has been somewhat lame, but now they have something from the Coen Brothers.
Yes, those Coen Brothers. Their new film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a Western anthology, hit the streaming service recently. And hey, Watson liked it!
So, as with any anthology, the film is only as strong as its weakest entry. Overall, I’d say the six short stories presented here are about as Coen-esque as you can get, and that’s a good thing if you’re on their wavelength. Generally speaking, I am. But what does that mean? It means, basically, characters often try to get ahead and largely fail. The most successful characters in Coen Brothers movies are the ones who are more or less happy with what they have and don’t shoot for more. Their comedies are often tragic ones with body counts.
As such, if you’re on their wavelength, what they do produce is an absolute hoot. And there may not be a finer hoot than the first of the six stories, the title tale of one singing cowboy named Buster Scruggs, a fourth-wall breaking guy with a song in his heart and a rather simple disposition. He’s played in brilliant manner by Tim Blake Nelson, and at first he doesn’t seem too different from, say, the sorts of characters Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy actor from Hail, Caesar! might have played in the in-universe movies he was making. But then we see a little more about Buster and quickly come to realize that despite what appears to be real affection from the Coens for singing cowboys, this is still their sort of movie.
Now, had the Coens stopped with that opening story, or even given Buster a feature-length adventure, the film would have been fine enough. Heck, it might have been outright brilliant. But, it isn’t just about Buster Scruggs, and a part of me wonders if the Coens are looking to do something similar as they did with the aforementioned Hail, Caesar! and make a movie with a lot of different styles of filmmaking all tossed into a blender, allowing them to experiment a bit and show at least to themselves they can make some old fashioned types of movies when they want to. As such, while there are some genuinely funny stories on display here, not all of the stories on hand are necessarily humorous. About all the six stories have in common is a melancholy air, some tragedy that could strike at any time and often does. Maybe the best a man can ask for between dark punchlines is just a smile from a pretty girl.
But, this is the Coen Brothers, and this is what they do. And they do it very well. 9.5 out of 10 mistaken cattle rustlers.