The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix 2018)
Hell broke luce
There are western elements in every Coen brothers film. From nu-western noir in Blood Simple, all the way to the jazz age, fictional bio-pic of Eddie Mannix, Hail, Caesar! The old west finds its way into every film the Coens tackle.
As far as out and out westerns, that also take place in the old west, there are really only two. Unless you consider O Brother, Where Art Thou? an out and out western, which I don't. There is True Grit, and this film, an anthology of stories that take place in the old west and have no connecting narrative thread, beyond their time and place.
Anthology films are often pretty flimsy prospects. Most popular in the horror genre, they usually feature a different writer/director for each segment and will often have some plot point that ties them all together. The problem is that, if you have a film made up of half a dozen short films, you can bet money on at least three of the six being less interesting than the three better ones. Sometimes you only get one good sequence in the whole movie. That's fifteen or twenty minutes out of one hundred and twenty, of good watching. That sucks.
The thing Buster Scruggs has going for it, is that all of the short films in the anthology are good, and that they were all directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, which pretty much guarantees quality control.
Netflix might seem like a strange place for a new Coen brothers movie, given that their movies always do very well at the box office. But it actually makes a lot of sense. Netflix has a hands off policy when it employs filmmakers to create Netflix-only content. Which means that they would've said something to the Coens along the lines of "we want you to do a film for Netflix. We'll give you as much money as you need to film it and complete creative control". That's a prospect far too juicy to pass up if you are a pair of creative geniuses.
Buster Scruggs is presented as a book, with each short film within, a chapter. In true Coen fashion, all of the chapters in the book are in some way, shape or form violent, dark, and humorous: The eponymous ballad singing gunslinger who finally meets his match; a grizzled old prospector who strikes it rich, only to be then shot in the back; a bank robber who robs the wrong bank teller; a yappy dog that leads to a Comanche attack; a mysterious stagecoach filled with mysterious characters on its way to a mysterious destination. All of these stories are as strange, beautifully well told and as quirky as you would ever hope to find by the masters of strange, well told and quirky cinema. They are also all filled with breathtaking vistas as endless and venerable as the best ones shot by John Ford or Sergio Leone.
The acting is likewise perfect and the plethora of A-list cameos is fun and exciting. Especially Tom Waits as the prospector and James Franco as the bank robber. One of his most understated and accomplished performances, despite its relative brevity.
I refuse to apply the word masterpiece to anything frivolously. I take that word very seriously and a piece of art has its work cut out for it, if it hopes to achieve that label from me. So although Buster Scruggs is as perfect an anthology film as perhaps I have seen, and although the Coens occupy the rarified air of having multiple masterpieces hanging from their cinematic belt loops, I will show restraint in how I choose to define this film in regards to its accomplishments.
What I will say is that this is easily one of the best films of the year, and easily one of the best films tagged with a Netflix logo currently available from the streaming giant. See it.