The Coen Brothers were coined as “quirky” before “quirky” moviemaking became commonplace. For me their best early film (with apologizes to “Fargo” fans) is “Raising Arizona”. Some of their more recent efforts – “Burn After Reading”, “True Grit”, “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Hail, Caesar!” – aren’t necessarily bad movies – but all of them fall just short of reaching their full potential (because of storytelling and an effort to by the brothers to stay relevant).
Their latest film, their first for Netflix, is “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. And this is the brothers’ epic career achievement. It’s a throwback and an homage – not only to the great Westerns, but to Joel and Ethan Coen themselves. The quirkiness is actually legit. The dialogue and situations are unique and distinct. It’s as if jumping on the streaming service stagecoach gave these celebrated writer/directors the chance to start anew. And it’s a golden opportunity they take full advantage of.
“Buster Scruggs” is a collection of six different stories set in the Old West. Each has an arc, appealing characters and a genuine sense of anticipation and emotion. These shorts range in length from 15 to 30 minutes. All are laced with more substance and backbone than most feature films.
The showcase character actually appears in the first story. And that’s Buster Scruggs himself. He’s a singing cowboy played with perfect style and impeccable timing by Tim Blake Nelson. Other tales feature the likes of James Franco (as an outlaw) and Liam Neeson (as a traveling show producer). Tom Waits takes-on the role of the old prospector. A young woman who’s part of a wagon train on the Oregon Trail is played by Zoe Kazan .
And Tyne Daily and Brendan Gleeson are two of five passengers on a mysterious stagecoach on the way to a mysterious town. (Don’t worry, this vignette doesn’t drag on endlessly like the one in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight”.)
Each story has its own sense of heart, humanity and life’s bitter truths – three quintessential elements of a classic western. There’s no character or specific theme that binds these chapters together (aside from the book that appears on screen from which they are told). This is a smart, unconventional decision by the Coens.
The frontier sets. The glowing cinematography. The original songs and compelling score. The self-aware nature. It all just feels right. A few of the stories could’ve used a trim (specifically Kazan’s, which is a tad tepid compared to the knockout four that precede it). But “Buster Scruggs” is a case in which the sum of its parts make for a great whole. It’s tough to imagine the compilation without each of the six sagas.
What the Coens have crafted is simply The Best… of the West.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” gets an A-.
Running Time: 132 min.