The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology film of six short story segments that essentially is the Coen Bros indulging themselves in brief studies of their particular style, and using to full advantage the Netflix release model, like the masters they are. A lot of people don't care for the idea of movies going straight to Netflix when they could be given theatrical releases -- and I get that, I do -- but if this drastic and controversial change to the distributions of movies is at all a good idea, this movie is exactly why.
|It's Coen through and through, but like we've never seen before. (Can that be said of all their projects...?)|
Guaranteed if it had been released in theaters it would have underperformed. Probably simply because it's an anthology film and people go to the movies to see big, fleshed out films. And Venom. This film is just a series of vignettes, their only connection to each other being that they're set in the wild west era, and that they all have a Coen signature stamped directly on their forehead. It's not theater material -- but it is perfect material for a quiet afternoon at home. Sweatpants material. The Coens aren't gonna start releasing only to Netflix now I'm sure, but this new model allowed them to release something different, a bit experimental, and proves itself to be completely worthy of existence.
I don't watch many short films, but I have read a lot of short stories. I have a collection of short horror stories that I'm making my way slowly through -- like The Tell-Tale Heart, The Shunned House, and The Metamorphosis -- and this film reminds me of them in the way they impacted me. Those three short stories I thought of off the top of my head out of 30 or 40 and they floated to the top by having such an impact that when I think of horror short stories they spring readily to mind. There are others I can think of if I try; others that I remember when I'm reminded of the title; and still others that I can't recall at all, unless perhaps I read them again.
|And so it goes with short films as well. Some moments of this film with haunt me forever.|
I don't love any of those short stories. Not in the way I love novels anyway -- but that's totally irrelevant because they're not novels. But I love reading them, and I think about them just as much as I do any other stories that have left impressions on me. I'm fairly certain that I think of The Metamorphosis daily. (I'm not sure that's a good thing.) The point being: brief as they are, they still left a lasting impression that will stick with me for life. And that's what The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in like. It may seem like casual viewing, but you will likely find yourself thinking of the huge moments created within those tiny spaces for a long time.
For me, I'll always remember the title story -- because it's the title and it's first -- it sets a disarming tone and pulls you in with warm comedy, but doesn't feel out of place from the fully dark segments either. The Gal Who Got Rattled is most likely to pop up in my thoughts regularly. It was my favorite, if I can say such a thing. I thoroughly enjoyed Near Algodones for it's perfectly delivered dark comedy and conciseness. All Gold Canyon I'll remember for one fantastic moment, and the satisfying way it ends. Meal Ticket is one of those situations where it makes you understand it so well that you wish you didn't. And The Mortal Remains is last in both orders. It feels so conclusive that its perfect to go last and wrap up.
|An impressive line-up.|
Acting is great all-around and its fun seeing so many familiar faces pop up, especially in roles that they'd never get were these stories full-length movies, but what stands out most is direction and writing. There were different themes, characters, locations, and even color palates, but every story still felt very much like they belonged together, because of the clearly presented and consistent Coen tone. There's varying degrees of happiness, sadness, lightness and darkness, but the same tone is always there -- a kind of pleasant, excited dread for what lies just around the bend.
As far as flaws go, the only thing I can offer is that I'm simply not attached to it in the usual way, which, of course, isn't really a flaw at all. I believe it to be fully what it was meant to be, and I believe it had the intended effect on me, but I don't see myself returning to it anytime soon, if ever. There's nothing new to be gleaned, which is why I usually return for seconds. They're very concise stories that give up all their fruit in one dramatic go. And I know how they end, which is the main point of it all to begin with.
|They're pros. They know what they're doing, and they do it well.|
In the 24 or so hours since watching it, it has returned to my thoughts many times, and that simple but important impact is the best recommendation for this film's quality I could ever give. Like the better horror shorts I've read, these tales are crafted in a precise and bold way, to showcase style, concentrate wit and creativity, and portray neatly closed stories and dramatic irony that are unlikely to fade from memory -- whether revisits to their strange, bleak and warm land is due or not.
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