The mere mention of Joel and Ethan Coen conjures many glowing descriptors: Auteurs, legends, geniuses. I’d add one more that gets overlooked—survivors. Talented directors who cut their teeth in the 80s and 90s continuing to find budgets and put out quality release after quality release in this day and age are sadly few and far between. Some, like David Cronenberg, have become cinematic guns for hire on other people’s ideas; others, such as John Dahl and Michael Lehmann, went the route of studio hand television episode directing long ago. Then we have the Coens, whose legacy is firmly cemented as they write and direct their original scripts and get wide release for them around the world. It’s worth noting the uniqueness of this situation, and perhaps worth a head scratch too as we see them boiling down their talents to the small screen for Netflix. Brief theatrical release aside, most viewers will experience The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs in the comfort of their living rooms, which might feel odd for these powerhouse filmmakers until you actually watch the thing. Anthologized into six standalone stories set firmly in the Western genre, it’s clear that the Coen Brothers are playing with the modern form of delivering (and binging) episodic content in one lump sum; The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is Joel and Ethan’s first and perhaps only season drop, and it’s a damn good one.
Perhaps the film is as close as we’ll come to a spiritual cousin to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, another example of aged cinematic masters continuing to operate at the height of their powers on the dime of a television network. The Coen Brothers set about seducing the viewer quickly with a pair of vignettes that lean heavily on slapstick violence and their trademark flowery/folksy dialogue, first with Buster himself, played to perfection by cast regular Tim Blake Nelson, followed by James Franco’s snakebit bank robber going through any number of bad day scenarios. We don’t come to realize how dark the ruminations on mortality and the brutality of the wild west we’ve just seen are, thanks to the glib delivery, until the third story, Meal Ticket, takes us through a wintry treatise on art versus commerce that may be one of the bleakest stories Joel and Ethan have ever given us. The legendary Tom Waits, a rare treat on the screen, shows up as a persnickety prospector looking for the big score, and then we’re treated to an elegant and ultimately elegiac trip up the Oregon Trail with a young lady in search of her purpose and destiny. Finally, a twilight stagecoach ride finds a philosophically disparate bunch traveling to Fort Morgan, or perhaps someplace more menacing. While ostensibly stand alone, each tale takes a varying angle on the savagery of the era, so they ultimately play off each other in a typically beautiful, morose Coen Brothers symphony.
As we’ve seen with their previous dips into the genre, the Coen Brothers exhibit a love for every aspect of Westerns that’s evident in every frame of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs—the gorgeous scenery, iconic performances, suspenseful excitement and epic romances of films past are less nodded to than embraced in a warm two and a half hour hug. The very game cast, peppered with familiar faces and new ones, turns in excellent work at every turn, eliciting in equal part laughs, gasps and even tears. Longtime Coen production composer Carter Burwell provides a lush score, and Inside Llewyn David lenser Bruno Delbonnel executes Joel and Ethan’s exacting standards for impeccable visuals with gusto. Outside of Noah Hawley’s surprisingly well done ongoing riff on the Coen Brothers’ career with FX’s Fargo, seeing the original indie masters themselves slum on the small screen never seemed like a possibility, and certainly not an inevitability. Fortunately this likely one-off with Netflix serves as a reminder that Joel and Ethan Coen remain successful survivors in an ever changing film and television environment because their canon, like the Western itself, remains an American classic.