The Coen Brothers have a knack for surprising people, but this is above and beyond. In January 2017, it was announced that the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men filmmakers would be making their first foray into television with Annapurna TV. The project was a Western anthology series called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Annapurna teased “an innovative television and theatrical integrated approach.” Soon thereafter Netflix picked up distribution, and filming began as folks awaited this highly anticipated six-episode TV series to debut sometime in either late 2018 or 2019.
Well that’s not the case anymore. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs appeared on the lineup for the Venice Film Festival today, and Variety confirms that the project is now a movie, and it’s coming out this Oscar season. Yes indeed, the Coen Brothers are at it again.
In a characteristically hilarious statement, the Coens confirmed the project is still an anthology, it’s just now in a feature film format:
“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. 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.”
Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular Buster Scruggs, and the ensemble also includes Liam Neeson, Zoe Kazan, and Tom Waits, but plot details are unclear. Initially it was announced that the TV series would tell six separate stories, so it’s unknown if this is still six stories or if that’s been shortened. I’d love to hear the inside story of how this project morphed from a six-hour limited series to a (presumably) two-hour film.
As previously revealed, the Coens reteam here with Inside Llewyn Davis cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel for what will be their first project shot digitally. The film will be given a theatrical exhibition to qualify for awards later this year, but most folks will be seeing this thing on Netflix in their living rooms.
The streaming service has been making major moves to position themselves for bigger Oscar wins lately, including securing a legendary awards strategist in their ranks. They already had a solid contender this year with Alfonso Cuaron’s ROMA, so adding Ballad of Buster Scruggs to the awards mix is yet another statement that they’re playing for keeps. With highly anticipated projects from two Oscar-winning auteur filmmakers under their belt, and coming off the significant impact of Mudbound last year, there’s no longer any doubt as to the validity of Netflix as a major player in the awards realm.
I personally am still bummed Netflix is so non-committal towards theatrical distribution—especially with undoubtedly eye-popping projects like these—and I sincerely hope this doesn’t mean films like these are no-go’s for Blu-ray or home video releases. But it’s impossible to ignore the sheer ambition on display with this Buster Scruggs move a month out from the official start of awards season. Talk about a splash.