Imagine a Coen brothers western that combines the stark fatalism of No Country for Old Men with the black comedy and ornate wordplay of their True Grit. Now imagine six of those westerns rolled into one. Better yet, just turn on your TV. The new movie from the world's greatest filmmaking duo is now playing exclusively on Netflix.
I say "now" since The Ballad of Buster Scruggs had a brief run in theaters last month. It didn't make a lot of money. It wasn't supposed to. It made history.
Scruggs is the first Netflix release to be put in theaters before being put on the air. The company reversed its controversial streaming-first position and made the concession to Hollywood for one reason: It means to win its first Best Picture Oscar this year.
Joel and Ethan Coen love nothing better than screwing with genres and tropes. The tradition of the western, not surprisingly, proves a gold mine in their subversive hands. Conceived as a leather-bound collection of oater yarns, the movie is divided into six chapters, each with its own distinctive tone and palette.
The first features Tim Blake Nelson as a singing cowboy with a violent streak. Clad in white, he dispenses philosophical asides as he rides from outpost to barren outpost in search of a poker game. What he finds instead is reason after reason to draw his six-shooter. It's Roy Rogers meets Pale Rider, with funnier songs and a heavenly final twist.
Reviewers have largely dismissed the second installment as the weakest, but I adored it. Like so much of this movie, it's structured like a classic Norm Macdonald joke. The saga seems to start off in one direction, only to meander at an unhurried-yet-calculated pace, then culminate abruptly in the perfect, completely unexpected punch line. James Franco is spot-on as the unluckiest bank robber in the West. As the teller, Stephen Root creates a crazy visual gag of a character. The closing scene redefines gallows humor.
The Norm Macdonald-est has to be the segment starring Zoe Kazan. At first it appears to track a young woman's travails as she travels the Oregon Trail in a wagon train. Gradually, though, it veers into romance territory before, out of nowhere, going all white-knuckle on us in a finale involving prairie dogs, a thunderous attack by hostiles and then another perfect, unpredictable coda.
Each chapter possesses its peculiar charms. Every one is a marvel of museum-quality art direction and showcases the brothers' unparalleled flair for dialogue. Nobody else comes close to turning a phrase with so consummate a fusion of puffed-up period diction and poetry. Your ears will thank you.
In addition to the top-tier talent already mentioned, the cast includes Tom Waits (great as a grizzled prospector), Liam Neeson in the role of a soulless impresario (think Colonel Tom Parker, only infinitely darker) and, in the closing chapter, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek and Brendan Gleeson.
Passengers in a stagecoach hurtling across otherworldly terrain, these three swap stories, bicker, even sing a wistful Irish ballad or two. They're such amusing company that it's not until they reach their destination, an isolated, curiously still and deserted hotel, that we suspect we've arrived not at a place of lodging but in the Coens' simulacrum of the next world. A little John Wayne here, a little John Wayne Gacy there, the brothers' latest is freaky frontier fun and the definitive riff on how the West was weird.