Six reasons to watch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest project takes the brothers away from the Hollywood hills, and into filmmaking frontierland with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which landed on Netflix last week. Here’s six reasons why it’s worth your time.
Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs
1.It’s a sign of the times
The Coens love Hollywood. They’ve mythologised its golden age (in Barton Fink), poked fun at it (in Hail, Caesar!) and, when they won three Oscars for No Country for Old Men, they conquered it. But their new, six-part ‘anthology film’ marks a departure from the traditional studios, in favour of Netflix. As other big names like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch test the water with their own projects for streaming platforms, it feels like change is afoot.
2. It’s a Western, but not as we know it
From the opening shot of the sunbaked Monument Valley’s sandstone buttes to saloon bar brawls and a hapless bank robber, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an homage to the Western genre and a pastiche of it at the same time.
Tom Waits as the prospector
3. 25 years’ work went into it
The first instalment, with a bloody (but comedic) gun fight set to the strains of country music, was written when the brothers were just starting out, whereas the final segment is a later, darker example of their oeuvre. The standalone short films ‘just got put in a drawer’ at first, according to Joel, but they’ve been taken out, bundled together – and were named best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year.
4. The cinematography is breathtaking
Bruno Delbonnel earned an Oscar nomination when he last teamed up with the Coens (on 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis). The French cinematographer is back for the brothers’ first project to be made with digital film, and his stunning, painterly shots of the sweeping Nebraskan prairie and desolate New Mexico plains don’t disappoint.
Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh and Bill Heck as Billy Knapp
5. Big-name cameos make an appearance
Liam Neeson plays a melancholy travelling showman, Brendan Gleeson is a jolly bounty-hunter, James Franco is the aforementioned bank robber, but the best of the lot is Tom Waits as a lone prospector, doggedly hunting for a pocket of gold in a picturesque valley.
6. The storytelling
At first, the six segments don’t appear to be linked – apart from their Wild West setting and each episode’s hefty death toll. But as one character observes in the final chapter: ‘You know the stories, but people can’t get enough of them. We all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us – but not us.’
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is available on Netflix now