By Jack Dignan
On Netflix Now
Leave it to the Coen Brothers to warp together a hysterical, bleak, nihilistic, meditative, musical commentary on death and the Wild, Wild West all in the span of a 132-minute Netflix movie. This new anthology, spread over six unique tales, encompasses every trait and style of the Coen’s prior filmography. You get a little bit of True Grit, a little bit of Fargo, a little bit of No Country For Old Men, and yes, even a little bit of A Serious Man. While the stories bounce between styles and tones, its thematic consistency and commentary on life, death and the stories we thrive on makes this one wildly entertaining romp.
Each short film gives us a distinct, idiosyncratic tale of life in America many years ago. We follow the adventures of everybody from a singing outlaw whose gun slinging days have never been better, to a young woman travelling cross-country to meet her future fiancé, all the way to a carriage full of strangers each heading to the exact same destination. No two stories are alike, and that’s what makes these frequently violent, stunningly shot tales burst from the screen.
They were originally envisioned as individual short films written by the Coen’s over a number of years, all tied together with a finale made for the purposes of this film. And yet you could never tell. While each stands on their own, their linking ideologies and overarching themes of death’s inevitability feels carefully articulated and meticulously planned out. Original reports had this penned as being a mini-series, but that’s since been debunked, and quite frankly, after watching it last night, there’s no possible way these stories ever went on for longer than intended. Ranging from 10 minutes to nearly 40, each clocks in at a near perfect runtime.
As is the case with every anthology film, not every story manages to live up to the standards set up by whichever came before it, but I never found myself disinterested in what was happening on screen, for even a subpar Coen Brothers film is still a film worth watching. The incredible opener, which deals with the titular story of Buster Scruggs, as played by Tim Blake Nelson, is never topped. It’s a whimsical, shockingly violent, larger than life musical that ends with one of my favourite moments from all of 2018’s cinematic delights. In fact, I’ve already gone back and re-watched that short prior to writing this review.
Even in the less exciting stories, particularly a Liam Neeson-led one titled “Meal Ticket,” the craftsmanship and performances never frail. Five time Oscar nominated cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel tosses aside the cliché of Westerns having a muted colour pallet, utilizing warm beautiful imagery and colourful sunsets in the most stunning of frames. While the camera often finds itself locked down, it’s the moments of movement and kinetic energy that breathe extra life into an already joyous experience. Oh, and Carter Burwell’s score… man, that score sure is something special.
The overall narrative does feel a little longer than necessary, especially in the aforementioned “Meal Ticket” episode, but also at times during “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” though a show stopping finale does redeem that one, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs remains a film you’ll be foolish to miss. The is the Coen’s doing what the Coen’s always do, and that’s a very good thing. We’re all going to die eventually, so you may as well check this film out while you’ve still got breath to give and a heart that beats. Stories last forever, people don’t.
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