When I first saw that the Coen brothers had a new Western in the works, my ears perked up like a cowboy’s at the sound of a dinner bell. Something nourishing was on the grill and it was called “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”
It wasn’t because Joel and Ethan Coen are great balladeers of the Old West. They’d only written one previous Western, “True Grit.” But they have put their unique voice as writers to good use across a range of genres from black comedy (“Fargo”) to crime drama (their Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men”), to period comedy (“Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?”), to wry romance (“Intolerable Cruelty”).
For people who appreciate the art form that is the screenplay, a coming Coen brothers movie is like the next book from a favorite author.
Yes, they have also been credited for directing most of their screenplays, but their scripts came first and that’s what made each of their movies an event to be anticipated and savored by their fans. That includes me and, obviously, many of the members of the writers branch of the academy.
“Ballad” is the Coen brothers’ seventh shared screenwriting nomination and their least likely because, well, it’s an anthology. Its six stories are related only by their Old West setting.
The difference between an anthology film and a TV series is the venue where you see it and since “Ballad” has been streaming on Netflix since its one-week limited theatrical release last fall, it’s fair to debate which of those it is. I binge-watched it at home and I’ll bet you did, too.
Netflix might have followed the same release pattern two years ago with Woody Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes,” but that would have been unwise seeing that it’s the slightest and worst work Allen has ever done.
So, is it the quality of the series that makes it a feature film rather than a series? The writers in the academy didn’t ponder the existential question and showed their love for it the only way they could, with an adapted screenplay nomination.
Even that is problematic. Only two of the six stories are based on previous work, one a short story by Jack London, another by Stewart Edward White. The other four are from original ideas that had been percolating in the minds of the Coens for many years.
Other anthologies have been released in theaters, most of them horror shorts strung together, and I can’t find another one that’s ever had its screenplay nominated at the Oscars.
I’m convinced that it’s the first story, a Coens original featuring a drawling Tim Blake Nelson as a gunslinging, singing cowboy, that sealed the deal for the academy voters. There are a couple of other good ones in the six-pack, notably the London story about an old prospector digging for gold and finding trouble and one from a White story about a frontier romance facing hard times. But the other three added up are a nickel short of a dime novel.
Black comedy in movies is about my favorite thing, thus my Pavlovioan response to news of new work by them. If like me, you roared at Steve Buscemi’s difficulties in “Fargo,” getting half his face shot off and then getting stuffed through a wood chipper, you’ll relish the punishment meted out by the singing cowboy.
That, along with “Ballad’s” nominated song (“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings”), is worth the price of admission (nothing if you have Netflix). Do I think it’s a movie? I do not. Do I think it deserved its nomination? I do.
Be sure to make your Oscar predictions so that Hollywood studio executives can see how their films are faring in our Academy Awards odds. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before winners are announced on Feb. 24.