3 (out of 4)
The Coen Brothers aren’t renowned for their artistic stasis. So following the less than fervent reception this decade with the folk tragedy of Inside Llewyn Davis (which nonetheless rests alongside their best to date) and the Hollywood skewering in Hail! Caesar, America's real dynamic duo escape to Netflix to experiment with film anthology and assist in altering the cinematic landscape of the most popular streaming service. Alfonso Cuarón's Roma is the equally distinguished flip-side of this high-profile one-two punch.
The Brothers have tried their hands at Westerns several times, whether in neo-noirs more representative of their compositions like the pair's debut Blood Simple and their magnum opus No Country For Old Men, or their recent remake of True Grit. Yet Buster Scruggs is most similar to the saturated crusades of O Brother Where Art Thou?. Similar to spinning country tales out of The Odyssey, Ballad rattles off a number of different tunes in the tumbleweed tradition – some straight, some strange, all Coen. Though the quality and conviction of the film relies on the oscillating tone and variety of ambition betwixt the six short stories, Buster Scruggs is a savory encapsulation of everything else they've ever wished they could do with the dilapidated genre. Stagecoaches, prospectors, gunslingers and wanted posters – I’d accuse them of simple deconstruction but the performances are too terrific, the scenery and production too beautiful and the writing is too wily and pointed.
After the most parodic sketch for our titular character serves as the hilarious musical opener, the film takes the turn for the tragic, ironic and quietly existentialist. The fourth segment "All Gold Canyon" with Tom Waits as a guileless prospector in search of gold, as well as courtship on the wagon trail in the highlight segment thereafter "The Girl Who Got Rattled," feel like miniature classics alongside many a Coen film. Every portion has a full purpose.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is relatively insignificant compared to your average Coen joint given its release platform and episodic structure. Still, despite themes and tricks that have served them all but flawlessly the past three decades, this album of a film is but the latest proof that cinema's best bros will never be done taking you off guard with poetic swoop of melancholy or a proper punch of mirthfulness.
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