I could not help but snicker, seated at a screening of the new Netflix film Outlaw King, as one of the studio logos appeared on screen. The studio name is Anonymous Content; in and of itself, it’s not a funny name, but over the last few years, if there’s anything truly consistent about Netflix Original Movies, it’s that they feel like…well, anonymous content. It’s hard for a week to go by without Netflix just dropping a new movie on its service, seemingly at random: here’s a new romantic comedy! Here’s a new David Wain film! How about a dystopian sci-fi pet project from Duncan Jones? And hey, we’re going to just release the new Cloverfield movie on Super Bowl Sunday, too, just to keep you on your toes.

Netflix’s choice to disrupt how movies are released and made is all well and good, but for a long time, their only pattern was randomly throwing tons of things at the wall (rather, the cloud) and hoping something stuck. But things may be changing. Somewhat.

Over the next couple months, Netflix is releasing a few genuinely high-profile films from major filmmakers. This month, they’ve got the aforementioned Outlaw King, from Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie, available now; and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, available this Friday. And in theaters, just after Thanksgiving (at least in markets like New York and Los Angeles), Netflix is unveiling Alfonso Cuarón’s first film since Gravity, a black-and-white epic called Roma. Cuarón’s Gravity lead Sandra Bullock is headlining another late-year Netflix film, Bird Box, too. (In the process of my writing this essay, they announced that they would release Andy Serkis’ Mowgli in theaters a week before throwing it up on the online streaming service.) Buster Scruggs, Roma, and Bird Box, as officially confirmed recently, are all going to theaters first, before arriving on Netflix. That’s right, Netflix has hit upon the novel idea of putting its movies in theaters before they’re available for viewing at home.

You may feel like it’s a rushed, haphazard choice for Netflix to wait until mere weeks before any of these films are released to confirm that they’ll be released in actual movie theaters. That’s because it is a rushed, haphazard choice. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve had the good fortune to see Outlaw King, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Roma on the big screen, in spite of not living in a big market. (I’m located in the Phoenix metropolitan area.) Depending on where you live, you may not see any of these movies in theaters. Which is a shame because, quality aside, they all deserve to be seen that way first.

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The Epic Scale and Truncated Story of Outlaw King

Of course, by the time you read this, and depending on where you live, you won’t be able to see Outlaw King on the big screen; it’s already wound up on Netflix. On one hand, this is the weakest of the three films, while also feeling like it should only ever have been seen in theaters. Meant to revive thoughts you might have of medieval epics like Braveheart, Outlaw King is set in the early 1300s in Scotland, focusing on Robert the Bruce as he attempts to get his fellow Scotsmen to fight against the tyrannical English. (One of the early victims of those nasty English, off-screen, is William Wallace himself.) While the story doesn’t impress, Mackenzie has unquestionably made an epic film in size and scope. “We have a spectacle,” the English King (Stephen Dillane) gleefully pronounces near the tail-end of the film’s flashy, single-take opening shot that lasts about 10 minutes and features both a duel and an assault on a castle; no doubt, Outlaw King looks the part.

As in Hell or High Water, Mackenzie’s leading man is Chris Pine, who acquits himself decently enough considering that he’s working with a Scottish accent throughout. (With the obvious caveat that I’m not an expert of the Scottish tongue, Pine’s accent is at least consistent from beginning to end. His American voice doesn’t slip out at any point.) Pine’s a bit more muted, much like the color palette Mackenzie’s working with, and only in a few moments does the movie have any high emotion or intensity. Any intensity is mostly provided by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as an exiled Scot who dedicates himself to Robert the Bruce, and seems quite delighted to get into the muck and brutally kill as many Englishmen as possible. (There’s one shot when Taylor-Johnson is roaring with violent delight, drool hanging off his lips, that felt awfully, unintentionally laughable.)

But Outlaw King suffers from its grim setting — not that the setting could get any brighter or more visually appealing — and from feeling like there’s very little to Robert the Bruce’s story that’s properly cinematic. A fair deal has been made of the fact that Mackenzie trimmed the film by 20 minutes after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (A fair deal has also been made about this film’s full-frontal nudity courtesy of Pine, which takes up less screen time than the time it will take you to read this sentence.) Certainly, the version I saw was barely under two hours, but it did feel strangely truncated up to and including a climactic and famous battle that’s as mired in muck as the rest of the film is.

The experience of watching Outlaw King is akin to watching the greatest-hits clip-show of a full-season TV series. To wit: Robert is first forced to be betrothed to a young Englishwoman (Florence Pugh), and by film’s end, they’re embracing happily and romantically, despite sharing very little screen time in between. Pugh’s given a slightly more impassioned version of the “traditional wife who stays home while the man gets into fights” character to work with, but there’s still a sense that Pine and Pugh could be a lot more charming to watch in a film with better material. The sense that this movie is rushed is amplified by one of the very strange ending title cards, telling us what became of Robert and his comrades, as it mentions a battle later in Robert’s life and then a parenthetical reading “(But that’s another story.)” So…great? Maybe tell that story instead? It’s a tossed-off way to end a film that tries to communicate bigness on an epic scale, and will now be appreciated on your laptop. Or your phone.

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A Hit-and-Miss New Coens Film

Where Outlaw King only feels like a truncated version of a TV show, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs initially began life as an anthology TV show. (At least, that’s what Netflix said, but if you told me the Coens never really had any intention of making an anthology TV series, instead of a six-chapter film, I would believe you.) Presented as the six short stories of the book of the same name, Buster Scruggs is as emphatic and entertaining an encapsulation of the Coens’ entire joint career as you’ll find. Each story is punctuated by shocking violence — only in the final chapter is violence more discussed than depicted — and some of them feature characters whose major personality trait is their gleeful loquacity. One of the longer, quieter stories — ”All Gold Canyon”, starring Tom Waits — is slightly upbeat, at least relative to many of the other stories, which involve at least a few grim deaths or pitch-black punchlines.

The first story, sharing the overall film’s name, sets the stage well, as Tim Blake Nelson plays a Roy Rogers-esque crooner on a horse, before revealing himself to be as vicious a killer as Anton Chigurh. The two big differences are that Buster Scruggs is an unassuming-looking fellow (Nelson’s delightful in the role, playing up how non-scary he looks), and that he’s exceedingly chatty, weaving the same kinds of verbal webs the Coens love to tangle inwards and outwards. Buster is as known for his murderous streak across the West, so it’s not much of a surprise when his story comes to an abrupt end. A few of the other stories have similarly dark finales: “Near Algodones” has maybe the single best punchline in the Coens’ careers, but it’s awfully hard to beat “Meal Ticket” for its pitch-black ending.

By its very nature, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is hit-or-miss; the good news is that the Coens’ writing and direction, coupled with their capability at giving the West a grandeur not seen since the days when the genre was at its peak, is as sharp as ever. While some sections are stronger than others — the final chapter, “The Mortal Remains,” is a step down from the other chapters and a more muted way to close the film — it’s a fine example of why every Joel and Ethan Coen film is an event for many cinephiles. Event status is something Netflix is chasing when they hire directors like the Coens — it’s not just the prestige of working with Oscar-winning filmmakers. It’s working with people whose reputations as auteurs precede them.

That, in effect, is why I’m glad I saw Buster Scruggs in theaters. Watching it on my TV wouldn’t be terrible, because I have a perfectly decent HDTV. But of course, you probably have a perfectly decent TV yourself. It doesn’t really matter how nice your TV is because this film wasn’t intended to be seen first on a small screen. This isn’t equivalent to debating whether you should see, say, Dunkirk in 70mm or IMAX or 35mm or something else. Either way, you get to see it in theaters. Not many folks can get to see Buster Scruggs in theaters. You have to wonder how much filmmakers of a certain prestige level will want to work with a studio that presumes to skip the theatrical experience until the last possible second.

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