Film Review | The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen Brothers bring their barely-blemished cinematic record to the streaming-screens with this Netflix-exclusive anthology of Western stories

Six-gun stories from the masters of cinema
Six-gun stories from the masters of cinema

Throughout their storied and decorated film career, the Coen Brothers have only ever made one ‘proper’ Western – the Jeff Bridges-starring True Grit (2010), which went back to the source material to re-adapt a genre classic by Charles Portis, previously released as a John Wayne vehicle back in 1968.

But given their penchant for archetypal characters and storytelling, as well as a mythic approach to Americana both contemporary and historical, it could also be said that this timeless-yet-flexible genre offers the perfect breeding ground for the duo’s sensibilities, and can be felt in at least a large chunk of all of their many films.

With The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-part anthology film that sees the cinematically monastic brothers leap into the Netflix universe, they are once again allowing themselves the indulgence of scratching the Western itch in a far more explicit way. Fully embracing the cosmetic nostalgia that rings the entire project, ‘Ballad’ begins with the titular story – literally a written story within the artifice of the world we’re thrown into, which begins as a hand cracks open a vintage anthology of prose narratives about the Old West, all illustrated with a quaintly hand-painted frontispiece.

Starring Tim Blake Nelson – a Coen Brothers veteran of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a similarly boisterous and hyper-stylised historical romp -- that first segment does a neat enough job of setting the right tone, shifting from jocular to psychotic in a gunslinger’s heartbeat. This is the kind of tonal juggling that lesser filmmakers – that is, most filmmakers who aren’t the Coens – would fail miserably at but which here proceeds at a sharp and steady clip, moving from action-laced black comedy to whimsical melancholy and achingly suppressed romance, before finally dovetailing into a Gothic chamber piece – or rather, ‘carriage piece’ – that does in a few minutes what Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight painfully attempted to squeeze out in three torturous hours.

As the segments roll on, another more interesting suggestion worms its way through… the idea that the anthology approach is the Coens’ cheeky way of short-circuiting the Netflix formula. While not episodic in nature – each of the segments is a self-contained story in its own right – this is a call-back to a vintage approach to short-form storytelling that certainly precedes our current binge-watching boom, and is recreated masterfully here (showing the turning pages of the book itself is the nostalgic coup de grace)

With a confidence unmatched by other contemporary filmmakers – a trait that has held the brothers in good stead since pretty much day one – the Coens expertly navigate the shifts in mood, tone and narrative pace that the various segments demand, visibly delighting in the variety allowed by the format. Individual mileage will vary given the nature of the beast, but it also means you get six Coen outings for the price of one. Which can never really be a bad thing.

The verdict

With their trademark brand of mordant wit and sleek storytelling skills, the Coen Brothers win at the Netflix game on their own terms. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may not be the filmmaking duo’s most vaunted or ambitious project – not by a long shot – but it remains a hugely satisfying confection whose hidden depths as elusive as they are convincing. Bursting with charm and sneaking in a beguiling darkness in each segment, it certainly makes for a worthwhile and high-quality two-hour lapse in your binge-watching schedule.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is currently streaming on Netflix.