When we first heard about Joel and Ethan Coen’s project The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it was as an anthology series for streaming giant Netflix. However, Variety reports that the proposed series has now apparently been condensed into a feature film—one that will premiere this fall at the Venice Film Festival, considered a “starting gun” for Oscar season releases. It’s a move that could be an important precedent in several ways.
As originally conceived, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was meant to be a series of “six tales about the American frontier,” starring the wonderful Tim Blake Nelson (of the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?) as the titular character. Now, the project is instead a feature, but one that will retain chapters and anthology structure.
“We’ve always loved anthology movies, especially those films made in Italy in the Sixties which set side-by-side the work of different directors on a common theme,” said the directorial duo in a statement. “Having written an anthology of Western stories we attempted to do the same, hoping to enlist the best directors working today. It was our great fortune that they both agreed to participate.”
It’s not entirely clear if the Coens are referring to themselves in that quote, or other directors brought in for various segments of the project, but no other directors have been announced. What is of interest is that cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis) shot the film on a digital camera, making Buster Scruggs the first-ever Coen brothers movie shot digitally rather than on film. As they say, “The times, they are becoming quite different.”
There are some other big names attached to Buster Scruggs’ various chapters, including the likes of Liam Neeson, Tom Waits and Zoe Kazan, but very little is known about its individual stories as of yet.
The film should hit Netflix by the end of the year, along with a theatrical release that will qualify it for Oscar nominations, but this is where things once again get interesting. After all: This is a “Netflix film” we’re talking about, even if it is one directed by the Coen Brothers. If it should achieve a nomination as gaudy as Best Director for the duo, it will be a major precedent for feature films on streaming services being taken seriously on the awards circuit.
We’ll keep our expectations in check until a trailer arrives, but this is certainly a film to keep an eye on.