The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

What started over twenty years ago as an innovative DVD rental-by-mail service has expanded into one of the largest media service providers in the world. Although what is now called is still a great value for the real movie buffs among us, there’s no denying the vast impact Netflix’s streaming service has had in the way we consume entertainment. This year alone, Netflix became the first streaming member of the Motion Picture Association of America (in all likelihood about to take 20th Century Fox’s ceremonial place once that studio becomes a unit of The Walt Disney Company later this year), and received a total of 15 nominations at the 91st Academy Awards®. While Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA is already a frontrunner for Best Picture, I’ll be taking a look here at the other Netflix-distributed feature film to garner Academy attention, which is also the latest from Joel & Ethan Coen.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, a co-production of Annapurna Pictures, is an anthology film comprising six separate stories. They are based on Western-themed short stories written by the Coen brothers which, in some cases, were adapted from or inspired by works from other writers. The ensemble cast includes Tim Blake Nelson (in the title role), Willie Watson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan, and Brendan Gleeson.

The tales are about as different as you can get, not just in the characters therein but really also in the depth and quality of the storytelling, and as such some of the vignettes are, without spoiling too much, way better than others. Nevertheless, the Coens’ signature brand of highly violent, tightly written black dramedy is on full display here, augmented by Bruno Delbonnel’s near-total on-location cinematography, Mary Zophres’ very authentic costume design, and Carter Burwell’s superb score, all of which complete each unique experience of the Wild West in their own way.

As with Netflix’s other Oscar® nominees, this film received a limited theatrical release (including the obligatory award-qualifying run in Los Angeles County) before “going wide” worldwide, proving that even they sometimes have to play by Academy rules. However, it paid off, as SCRUGGS received three nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Song: “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings.”

From the moment they introduced their first original series, it’s becoming clear that Netflix is becoming more of a major player in the entertainment industry than any of us may have ever expected. While I haven’t yet considered their platform as an ultimate destination for my own film or television projects (partly out of fear of getting lost in their sea of content, including ever-increasing waves of original fare), and while I still hold a lot of tough love for Hollywood and their way of doing things—and, by the way, Netflix is no exception—it’s clear that the times, they are a-changing…faster than the fastest guns in the West.