By Webster Tilton
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs comes to us courtesy of the Cohen brothers who also gave us No Country For Old Men and True Grit. Slapping their name on a project immediately conveys high expectations and, once again, they deliver. This time presenting us with six stories set in the old west. Each told with flair, panache, and a sense of humor like the Gobi Desert at midnight; cold, dry and merciless.
The brothers’ usual attention to detail and directing skill is on display. It takes good storytelling to make you care what happens to people you’ve never met before in the space of two hours, it takes superb storytelling to do the same in twenty minutes.
Crucial to that is the ability to generate tension. The rule here is “show, don’t tell,” and very few can show it as well as the Cohens do. They seem to particularly enjoy the use of shadows and, like Quentin Tarantino, they expect the audience to pay close attention if they want to follow the plot. Lose focus for a moment or two and you’re likely to miss something important.
My favorite was a story about a traveling storyteller. Apart from his actual recitations, the story is almost completely devoid of dialogue. The ending seems to be known to both of them almost from the beginning of the vignette, and no power on Earth seems able to stop it.
The longest story runs about 35 minutes and is the only one with the length to do character development. It concerns itself with a woman who finds herself without friends or means on a wagon train to Oregon. The Cohens use the opportunity to show that they know how to bide their time and throw a punch at the crucial moment. Best of all, they make it hard to see it coming.
More impressive still is when they drag an emotional response out of you slowly, and inexorably by making sure that you do know the hook is coming and then make you sit and wait for it. Like the slow climb up the track of a roller coaster. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is excellent, and you should definitely watch it.
Ah, Netflix. For every Stranger Things they make they also shovel eight or nine wish-fulfillment space filler projects at us. Behold what they shoveled out (and this is just the Christmas stuff) during November 2018: “The Christmas Chronicles” “A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding”, “The Holiday Calendar” and “The Princess Switch”.
It’s doubtful they’ll be swayed by one cynical curmudgeon in Buffalo, New York but in the hope of a Christmas miracle, here is my plea:
Please refrain from trying to compete with Hallmark. They’re better at making crappy feel-good movies than you will ever be. Please concentrate on using your platform to do innovative new things that can’t be done anywhere else, or at least stuff that doesn’t suck.