'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs'
Just the idea of a Coen brothers film on Netflix is an odd one. The best American filmmakers of the last three decades are releasing their latest on a streaming service? And it's a collection of short Westerns? Fortunately, you can rest assured that their consistency translates to this medium and then some: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs might be the most entertaining and engaging movie of the year.
The film is comprised of six stories: The titular Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) meanders around the desert, singing songs and winning duels. A cowboy (James Franco) attempts to rob a bank. A manager (Liam Neeson) and his limbless orator (Harry Melling) fall on hard times. A prospector (Tom Waits) searches for a vein of gold, which he dubs “Mr. Pocket.” A young woman (Zoe Kazan) runs into trouble as she travels west in a wagon train. And five people (including Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, and Major League’s own Chelcie Ross) share a stagecoach and get into occasionally ominous philosophical debates.
None of these stories connect to each other, but they all feel unmistakably Coen-y. The Scruggs entry is the funniest; Neeson's is the bleakest; and the finale is very in line with how nearly every Coen brothers movie has ended for the last 15 years. Not all six are home runs, but there's also not a clunker in the bunch. And, as we saw in True Grit, the Coens' ear for dialogue fits the Western style like a glove.
The standout is unmistakably Waits. His voice is fantastic, his delivery is impeccable, and his lines are so very quotable. He's also pretty much alone for his entire story, which means his quest for gold and amazing one-liners (“How high can a bird count anyways?”) get a fully justified spotlight. It's a role that could’ve lazily gone to a grizzled Nick Nolte, especially given this particular star-heavy cast, but the Coens are geniuses at getting magic from less-regarded character actors. I doubt a Netflix-based ensemble Western is going to garner much Academy Award love, but it would redeem the entire antiquated ceremony if Waits is recognized.
You also can't review this movie without discussing Nelson; despite his diminutive stature, his Scruggs has an innate confidence that is played for laughs and also belies a fairly vicious individual. When he's finally bested, he laments how uncouth the world can be, as if he hasn't just killed a dozen people (albeit all scofflaws who meant him some level of harm). It sets the tone for the stories to come while providing levity that is almost instantly and appropriately undercut by Franco's and Neeson's chapters. And, of course, Nelson proves as good as he was in O Brother; he's a fantastic folksy mouthpiece.
This is exactly the right Coen brothers movie for Netflix. The second it ended, I started it over to watch the Nelson and Waits segments again, and the six-part split makes it an easy one to stop and resume at your convenience. I wish I'd seen it on the big screen with an adoring audience, but I didn't mind having it at my fingertips either. It's not at the Fargo or No Country for Old Men level, and it's not quite as memorable as The Big Lebowski or A Serious Man. But the Western may be the perfect genre for the Coens’ tragicomic stylings, and each of these entries has something unique to offer. They're the kind of stories you'd casually call “fun” and then regret your choice of words when you recall how dark nearly everything was. If that's not Coen-y, I don't know what is.