The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

busterThe Cohen brother’s latest film, via Netflix of all places in yet another indication of the changing times we are living in, has come under some scrutiny and marked criticism since its release a few days ago.  I have to say that I’m rather surprised- I thought the film was an absolute joy, and one of the best films the Cohen brothers have yet made.

Indeed, whilst on past form, a ‘Netflix Original’ may not have people salivating at the prospect, things do seem to be changing- I watched Outlaw King a few nights back and was thoroughly impressed by it. It had a sense of scale and intensity that was very much a big-screen event but was delivered direct from Netflix in Dolby Vision as if cinemas are now irrelevant. We’ve also had Orson Welles’ last film The Other Side of the Wind added to watchlists everywhere, a major event that I’ve only been putting off because, well, it deserves a special evening and requisite attention.  Netflix put up the trailer for Andy Serkis’ film Mowgli announcing it will be available December 7th. Previously intended for a cinema release this Autumn before its studio got cold feet, this darker retelling of a tale previously the domain of Disney seems a fascinating prospect.

So anyway, back to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs– an anthology movie, containing six tales of the Old West, I understand it was actually intended to be an anthology mini-series until the Cohen boys decided it all worked better as parts of one movie. Bookended by shots of the pages of an old book of short stories being turned, with colour paintings introducing each story/chapter of the film, its a delightful piece. Naturally not all of the stories are equal, with some clearly inferior to others, I don’t think either of them outstay their welcome and all have something going for them- exquisite cinematography/locations or great acting and casting, wrapped up in a genuinely great score by Carter Burwell, a frequent collaborator of the Cohens. I really enjoyed it from  start to finish- laughing one minute, horrified the next, disturbed and amused later. Despite the humour displayed, particularly in the iopening tale, overall the film is quite dark, with a surprising grim sense of tragedy and suffering throughout.

Whether even the Cohens could have gotten something like this greenlit by a studio for traditional cinema release is open to debate. Even for them, this is a quirky and, considering some reviews, hotly polarising film. It certainly qualifies as ‘Art’ then rather than simply a commercial venture. I would like to think the experience of the Cohens was pleasant enough to get them considering more such projects for Netflix, because on the evidence of this film, maybe the multiplex should be a little concerned. The words ‘Netflix Original’ are not to be immediately sneered at.

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