The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Netflix sure has turned film distribution on its ear, and the trickle down effect has now reached even my humble website. When I began reviewing films here, back in early 2000, I abided by one rule: that I would only review new films that I saw in theaters. The idea, delusional as it may have been, was that people would weigh in with my review before heading out to catch a movie – just as they would with a legitimate newspaper critic. This "only in theaters" practice connoted a kind of urgency.

That all changed when Netflix, which back in 2000 was merely shipping DVDs by mail, decided to get into the filmmaking business. How do I deal with a new title when it's only released on Netflix? Do I review it or do I ignore it? Is it a "real" movie or a TV movie? Do I try to watch it as soon as it becomes available, or does it even matter?

Complicating things is the nature of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. As an omnibus film, divided into six distinct stories, many thought it was a TV series when Netflix first announced it. The Coen Brothers ultimately delivered a standalone film, with Netflix even allowing it a brief theatrical run before its small-screen debut. But as the Coens are important filmmakers, and as the film might well be nominated for an Oscar or two, I've had to abandon my old rule and begin reviewing Netflix releases – even if I only see them at home, with the kittens walking in front of the TV, the wife playing a game on her iPad, and other distractions.

Anyway, there we have it. And now on with the review.

The titular Buster Scruggs only appears in the first of this film's six Western-themed stories (which, appropriately enough, are introduced as chapters in a book). As portrayed by a toothsome Tim Blake Nelson, Scruggs is a singing cowboy in the Gene Autry mold, absurdly trotting about in his spotless white suit while surrounded by realistically filthy outlaws. Nelson addresses the camera repeatedly, denying his character's sobriquet "The Misanthrope" even while gleefully – and gruesomely – gunning down his rivals. Filled with florid dialogue, lurid violence, and outright silliness, this is Vintage Coen, a throwback to works like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski. The second story, a drily funny tale of frontier justice starring James Franco, mostly follows suit.

And then we get to the third story, the strange, spare saga of a limbless young Englishman (Harry Melling, the onetime Dudley Dursley) who recites poetry from town to desolate town while his partner/keeper (Liam Neeson) passes the hat around. The two men speak nary a word to each other, and the story's ending veers past black comedy into a harsh tale of survival. We're still in the land of the Coens, but now we're edging into darker territory.

As the last three stories unfold, it becomes clear what the Coens are really up to. They are taking classic Western movie tropes – the gunslinger, the bank robber, the sideshow, the prospector, the wagon train, and finally the stagecoach – and using each to reflect on the actual Old West as a beautiful but brutal world, where loneliness, insanity, and death lurked around every corner. It is one of the brothers' bleakest films, and also one of their most gorgeous. If it doesn't immediately satisfy, it nevertheless haunts.