Directed By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Release Date: November 16, 2018 (Netflix)
Buster Scruggs is Joel and Ethan yelling “In case you forgot, we’re the fucking Coen brothers”, while dunking from the free throw line just to prove that they can.
Pardon me while I go throat deep on the Coen brothers for the next two minutes of your day. Joel and Ethan are masters of movie making. Best picture dramas. Best picture-snubbed dark comedies. Critical acclaim out the ass. With nothing left to prove, Joel and Ethan have used The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to show that they can do whatever the fuck they want and no one is going to challenge them. Nothing exemplifies this notion more than shooting a series of short-stories, calling it a “movie” and then getting it funded as a Netflix original.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part anthology that tells several unconnected short-stories set in the Old West. With tones ranging from absurd to devastating, the Cohen brothers borrow from every cliche in the western book, but add dark humor, style, and a level of sharpness that no other filmmakers could hope to match.
This entire “movie” feels like the Coen Brothers are taking out their dicks and measuring them right in front of us; and just when we think they’ve shown us every inch, they ask for another ruler. Each Story ranges from about 15-30 minutes, packed with more dark humor, character development, witty dialogue and great shots than most movies can fit into two hours.
Every actor seems to understand that they are in a Coen brothers production and acts accordingly. I avoid hyperbole when I say that every actor with significant screen-time is a standout. Among the best are Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick, Wildlife) as a damsel in distress and Tom Waits (Seven Psychopaths) as a gold prospector. It is a shame, however, that Jeff Bridges didn’t find his way into this one.
Buster Scruggs is a captivating watch, no doubt, but this movie’s moment feels bigger than the confines of its script. The Cohen brothers have chosen to adapt with the times, something that filmmakers of their magnitude rarely do with such grace. They seem to understand that attention spans are dwindling. Their solution: stay on one idea for 20 minutes and then sharply turn the ship left and jump into something entirely different.
As another bow to prevailing winds, they’ve leaned into the streaming trend; a trend that they have every right to look down upon. This is not Joe Blow producing a mini-series for Hulu. This is the fucking Cohen Brothers making a Netflix exclusive. This is like if Lebron James signed an endorsement deal with New Balance and suddenly made the brand cool.
With No Country for Old Men, True Grit and now Buster Scruggs in their portfolio, the Cohen Brothers are the undisputed champions of the western genre. If you see “directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen” and a cowboy hat on a movie poster, it’s going to be a must-watch. The true level of this movie’s triumph, however, is yet to be seen. If we can get more big-time directors to sign on to do free-form art on streaming platforms, everyone wins. Critically acclaimed movies will have a home as their box office numbers decline, and I can save on the $60 a week I’m spending at Cinemark.