The Ballad of Buster Scruggs v The Future of Independent Cinema in the UK

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is the latest feature film from the frequently-brilliant Coen Brothers, continuing their display of love towards the American Western genre. It is also their first for streaming platform Netflix, in a move that is becoming more and more common in the modern age of cinema.

The move to streaming platforms may feel progressive, but it isn’t great news for independent cinemas in the UK.

The film – more hit than miss

Watching ‘Buster Scruggs’, it’s easy to feel like you’re watching a Netflix series that has been mashed into a single film, perhaps to allow it to be considered as an Oscar contender. If this is the case, it’s a shame, though it is understandable.

It is, as is often the case with vignette films, a little hit and miss. The opening titular short is a high point, with a hilariously-positive character singing his way through a killing spree. Tim Blake Nelson is a joy to watch and his interactions with the locals is shot to perfection (pun not initially intended). Both ‘Near Algodones’ and ‘The Gal That Got Rattled’ are memorable and very much work in their own right, making me long for more of an expanded narrative.

‘Meal Ticket’ has really stuck with me and I kept thinking about it many days after I saw it, with Harry Melling starring as a limbless performing artist working alongside Liam Neeson. It unravels at a depressingly effective rate, with the final scene leaving me on the edge of my seat for all the wrong reasons. A perfect example of short film-making.

Whilst the ‘All Gold Canyon’ short is largely forgettable, it isn’t bad. It’s really a shame that the final vignette, ‘The Mortal Remains’, is such a disappointing way to finish the feature. It is neither emotionally effective nor steeped in humour, and it doesn’t really have much to say. It’s a missed opportunity to perhaps tie the previous five shorts together, at least with a thematic link. Instead it confirms the suspicions that these were six independently-realised pieces of art that function in their own right.

The Coen Brothers may deny it but it doesn’t run like a movie. The overarching theme is ‘American Western as a genre’ rather than there being a connecting emotional theme or associated character. Thankfully, it is a genre that the film-makers know how to handle and the results are more hit than miss.

The shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’

Having recently become a father, Netflix is very convenient for me, but I’d never opt to experience a film at home if there’s an option to see it at the cinema. You can’t quite appreciate the magic of the cinema when watching on a small screen at home.

My main criticism, therefore, is that it was released in an exclusive deal with Curzon cinemas in the UK. As it happens, my location means I have close access to three brilliant independent cinemas: QUAD in Derby, Phoenix in Leicester and Broadway in Nottingham. Sadly, not one of these is part of the Curzon group; my nearest Curzon is 64 miles away in Sheffield. This led to Jake Harvey (Phoenix, Leicester), Caroline Hennigan (Broadway Cinema, Nottingham), Adam J Marsh (Quad Cinema, Derby) and the owners of twelve other independent cinemas to write an open letter to Netflix to reconsider their policy.

I sit on a film discussion group panel and I know that a good number of the members do not subscribe to any online streaming service. My mother, who previously attended a Coen Brothers discussion course with me, has no means of watching ‘Buster Scruggs’ unless it’s on at a cinema. By making this exclusive to Curzon, they have excluded a large demographic of their potential audience.

‘Buster Scruggs’ follows excellent Netflix exclusives like Annihilation, Okja and Roma, all critically acclaimed and well-received by cinephiles. They even funded the completion of a posthumous release from director Orson Welles. The quality is undeniable. The problem isn’t in the quality. It’s in the lack of support to  the truly independent cinemas that have supported non-mainstream releases for so long.

As it turns out, ‘Buster Scruggs’ is the first Coen Brothers film in over a decade I haven’t watched at the cinema. For me, this is a great shame and it’s saddening to think this is where some great directors are taking their latest pictures.

Overall, this is a mostly great film that some fans of the Coen Brothers will enjoy on the big screen, depending on a combination of a geographical lottery and your willingness to drive. For the rest of us, we’ll have to settle for the small screen and an increasing temptation to skip the bad segments, facilitating the shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’.

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