When Joel and Ethan Coen announced last year that they were making an anthology series for Netflix, there was obviously a lot of excitement from cinephiles and TV fans alike.
After all, the brothers are among the most visionary filmmakers working today, having created grisly Oscar-winning dramas (“No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo”) and star-studded offbeat comedies (“The Big Lebowski,” “Hail, Caesar!”).
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which premiered Thursday at New York Film Festival, falls somewhere in between. Retooled as a two-hour movie, the sprawling Western is split into six idiosyncratic chapters, each telling disparate stories with different characters, and playing in genres such as slapstick comedy, tragic romance and existential horror. Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson and Zoe Kazan co-star as a goofy gunslinger, thieving cowboy, traveling showman and grieving pioneer, respectively.
The Coens started writing “Buster” 25 years ago, but didn’t start thinking of how to bring it to the screen until about a decade ago. Although initially intended as an anthology series, the varying lengths of each “episode” – ranging in length from roughly 12 to 35 minutes – made it difficult for Netflix to package as a TV show.
Previously: Emma Stone’s ‘Favourite’ audition was (almost) as weird as the film itself
More: Robert Pattinson is an abstinent astronaut in space sex movie ‘High Life’
“That’s an artifact of what a strange animal it is, and (Netflix) didn’t know – none of us really knew – what to call it or how to classify it,” Joel Coen said during a festival news conference. “But aside from the confusion about the classification, there was never anything that we were considering doing any differently” in terms of the content or length of each story.
Although some critics have complained about uneven tonal shifts and the lack of a narrative through-line between the six mini-movies, “Buster” has received overwhelmingly positive reviews (95% “fresh” on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes) since premiering at Venice International Film Festival in August. (It hits Netflix and select theaters on Nov. 16).
Its most entertaining chapters are its first two: In “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Coen favorite Nelson plays a smiling, singing outlaw whose jaunty demeanor offsets his reputation as the sharpest shot in the West. Armed with pistols and quippy one-liners, he nimbly guns down foes in hilariously gruesome ways, until he ultimately meets his match (Willie Watson) in a wacky musical showdown. Franco stars in the equally funny second chapter, titled “Near Algodones,” in which his character is sentenced to be hanged after a bank robbery attempt gone awry. But when the lawmen who apprehended him are killed by a tribe of Native Americans, he’s stranded alone on his horse with a noose around his neck, which could snap any time if his steed moves away from the tree he’s dangling from.