The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Most good geeks will tell you 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series is not only the greatest cartoon of all time but also the best rendition of the Dark Knight. I’m not inclined to disagree with them, but my favorite riff on the Caped Crusader is actually the oft-forgotten 2008 animated series The Brave and the Bold. Unlike every interpretation of the Batman mythos before it, The Brave and the Bold manages to integrate every contradictory aspect of the character and synthesize it into a perplexing and intriguing whole. Yes, it acknowledges the darker, broodier side of the character, but also the campy, goofier side. It puts some of Batman’s silliest escapades on equal footing with the grimmest tales in the character’s history. It’s a celebration of everything Batman has ever been. And, somehow, it simply works.
Netflix’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—the latest film from the Coen Brothers—has absolutely nothing to do with Batman, of course. But it reminds me a lot of The Brave and the Bold in that Joel and Ethan Coen, with their quirky old-west anthology, have managed to create a homage to cowboy cinema that embraces all its disparate aspects—from the singing cowboys of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers to the grimdark western revival films of the ‘90s like Clint Eastwood’s brutal Unforgiven, and everything in between.
Tom Waits in “All Gold Canyon”
The resulting pastiche definitely wouldn’t work in the hands of less capable filmmakers, and it certainly wouldn’t work as a single narrative. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a series of six disconnected vignettes, each with its own style and tone, and each—it seems—intended to riff on different tropes from the history of old-west cinema, alternately exalting, tweaking, or subverting them. I couldn’t help but wonder, in the middle of “All Gold Canyon” (ostensibly starring Tom Waits, but more accurately starring some of the most gorgeous unspoiled vistas I’ve ever laid eyes on) why the film wasn’t shot in a wider aspect ratio, indebted as it is to some of John Ford’s later VistaVision masterpieces.
Put a moment’s thought into it, though, and that question seems silly. Ultra-wide aspect ratios, though possible at home, are the stuff of commercial cinemas, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was made for the small screen. It’s a film no major film
studio would have ever bankrolled. And that fact alone is one of the major reasons for the increasing cultural insignificance of commercial cinemas.
Does that mean we’ll see more films like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime become the 800-Pound Gorillas of the film industry? One can only hope. It’s a quirky, weird,
wonderful work that ranks amongst the Coens’ best since The Big Lebowksi.
It’s also worth noting that the film’s use of high dynamic range is amongst the most compelling I’ve seen in ages. You no doubt have access to a few different sources capable of playing Netflix in your home entertainment system. If any of those support Dolby Vision, go that route. The luscious landscapes—and even the obvious soundstage settings of the final vignette—benefit beautifully from the enhanced contrast, shadow detail, and lighting effects.
And, yes, in this case that really matters. The substance of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs emerges in large part from its style. That’s not a knock against it, mind you. It’s simply that you could easily sum up the narrative of any of these six episodes in a sentence or two. What makes the film work isn’t its narrative depth. It’s the artistry of its cinematography, the quality of its performances, and of course the inimitably ridiculous brilliance of the Coen Brothers’ too-clever-to-be-believable dialogue.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.