Netflix's 'Ballad of Buster Scruggs' Is a Perfect Showcase of the Coen Brothers' Genius

In Netflix's 'Ballad of Buster Scruggs', released on Friday, the Coens show how the West was fun

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Tim Blake Nelson in the Coen Brothers' "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs."
Tim Blake Nelson in the Coen Brothers' "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" on Netflix.Credit: Netflix

Thanks to the Trump White House, we have conclusive proof that stupidity isn’t finite. But what about genius? Does an artist have only so many great works in them before they start churning out facsimiles of previous masterpieces, their latest endeavour forever doomed to be compared unfavorably to their earlier efforts? Few would dispute Paul McCartney’s right to be called a musical genius, for example, but who wouldn’t sum up his career as “The White Album” and then the shite albums?

In Hollywood, it is nigh-on impossible for even the greatest talents to make classic after classic. The likes of Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson have endured career blips (although that’s far too kind a word for the likes of “Gangs of New York” and “Inherent Vice”), but have always managed to bounce back.

Others have not been so blessed. For years, the likes of Rob Reiner, Woody Allen and Robert Zemeckis could do no wrong – until suddenly they could do no right. They went from having the golden touch to being King Midas’ idiot brother, with everything they touched turning to shit. That quote, by the way, comes courtesy of Carey Mulligan’s character in the comedy-drama “Inside Llewyn Davis” from the Coen Brothers, who I would argue are Hollywood’s only living geniuses still at the top of their game.

For the entirety of their 35-year careers, Joel and Ethan Coen have been critical darlings – as likely to win Academy Awards (for “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men”) as Palme d’Ors (“Barton Fink”) at the Cannes Film Festival. They have written and directed 16 movies during that time, and not one of them scores below 54 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Add all of Michael Bay’s film’s scores together over the years and they probably don’t even reach the Coens’ average score.

Almost all of their films – even the ones I would class as frivolous and self-indulgent (yes, I’m looking at you “Hail, Caesar!” and “Burn After Reading”) – have been feted, and most have earned their money back at the box office (some, such as “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit,” even became bona fide hits).

The brothers have managed to prosper on their own idiosyncratic terms, never becoming beholden to the big studios. In an age where a surprising number of directors don’t have final cut on their own movie, the Coens have always called the shots.

So Netflix must have been delighted when it landed their first directorial foray into television in the summer of 2017 – a six-part Western series called “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” Except this is the Coen Brothers we’re talking about here, so a year later came the news that they had decided to edit the series down into a 132-minute anthology film, featuring six unconnected stories.

What Netflix truly thinks of that decision is as well-known as the number of people who actually stream its content. But it did at least offer the streaming giant the perfect insight into working with cinematic icons who have always followed the muse rather than Mammon. If they were designers, you can imagine asking them for a swimming pool and being taken aback when they then present you with a pool table – but you’d still probably love it.

From the Coen Brothers' "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" on Netflix.Credit: Netflix

The first thing to note about “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is that you absolutely have to watch it on the biggest screen available. Forget your smartphone or computer screen, and go buy a bigger television – hell, project it onto the side of your building if possible. Shot digitally (a first for the Coens) in the states of New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska, every single frame here looks amazing, whether that be dusty frontier vistas, the lushest of valleys, fingers being blown off or beautifully lit amputees (this is the Coen Brothers, remember).

Looking at the final product, you can understand why they decided to ditch the TV series idea and return to their familiar film format. (Although the brothers are credited as executive producers on FX’s brilliant “Fargo” series, that is very much Noah Hawley’s baby.) There’s a throwaway quality to a couple of the segments here which probably wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny as standalone episodes, but nonetheless act as perfect diversions here.

The six stories are presented as literally that: Stories from a book called “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Other Tales of the American Frontier.” It’s a simple framing device, but still artfully done in a way that only the Coens would actually so much care about.

The first couple of stories are the most unashamedly knockabout, even while introducing some of the film’s underlying themes: brutal, sudden violence; the danger of being usurped; the cheapness of life and inevitability of death; and the power of music to soothe the soul.

Indeed, the first story (which gives the film its title) continues the Coens’ ongoing fascination with music – which began back in earnest with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” in 2000 and has rarely been far from the screen since –whether that be the folk of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the inspired “On the Town”-esque musical number in “Hail, Caesar!” or the songs used in four of the stories here.

The opener is the funniest story of the six, with Tim Blake Nelson’s guitar-playing cowboy crooning songs to his horse, Dan. Trust me, it’s far funnier than it sounds.  The second story features James Franco as an ill-fated bank robber and features literally the funniest example of gallows humor you will ever see. The fourth, meanwhile, looks absolutely stunning and sees an elderly prospector (the wonderful Tom Waits) determinedly digging up a hillside on his lonesome in search of a pocket of gold.

I would have happily spent more time savoring this story, and the same is doubly true of the fifth tale – which gets the most screen-time here but could have arguably been turned into a 90-minute movie in its own right. Zoe Kazan provides a rare female presence as a young woman, Alice, heading out with her elder brother to begin a new life in Oregon. This is a beautifully understated love story set on the wagon trail – and, somewhat unusually for the filmmakers, has a real emotional kick.

The final story, a kind of ghost Western, was the only one that left me cold, but the most haunting tale is a 20-minute segment called “Meal Ticket” (each “chapter” has its own title). This one stars Liam Neeson as a taciturn curmudgeon who ferries a quadriplegic-amputee thespian, Harrison (Harry Melling), around frontier towns in order to perform soliloquies in front of paying audiences. What follows may well be “peak Coens”: Several days on, I have been unable to shift Melling’s ashen face (there is precious little else of him to see on screen) from my mind.

The one curio about Netflix buying “Buster Scruggs” is that it isn’t streaming any other Coen Brothers films at present (not in Israel, at least). Luckily, “Buster Scruggs” serves as a perfect smorgasbord of their work: Gross yet laugh-out-loud violence; memorable characters wherever you look, from lead roles to cameos; and storylines that are never far from taking a turn for the macabre. Trust these geniuses to show you how the West was fun.