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« Is that you Carey Mulligan? | Main | Catch-Up: A Simple Favor, The Children Act, Colette »
Sunday
Oct072018

NYFF: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Jason Adams reporting from the New York Film Festival

Anthology films always have a bit of an under-cooked quality - you like a chunk of meat here, a chunk of potato there, but the stew's uneven, the broth skinned over from sitting. Even the very best ones can feel haphazard - you can and should certainly argue that Pulp Fiction is an anthology film, albeit one that's po-mo'd up in glorious fashion, but some days you're just not in the mood for Honey Bunny, ya dig?  The Coens' six-part The Ballad of Buster Scruggs maintains that streak - highs, lows, and everything in between, slapped between two fraying book covers...

The Ballad is told book-style with a godly hand sweeping in, plying the pages one by one for us, introducing its chapters. It starts with Coen regular Tim Blake Nelson as a singing cowboy complete with neighing horse accompaniment, and ends with Tyne Daly as a holier-than-thou done-up frump situated among weirdos on a stagecoach bound for... well that'd be a spoiler, lil' darlin.

Alongside Tyne the only other substantial role for a woman here is a real heartbreaking little ditty about a wagon train starring Zoe Kazan, who catches the eye of an attractively bedraggled Bill Heck. If you're looking for the Coens to up-end the genre by telling the stories of the unexpected you'll come away unsatisfied. There's nothing revolutionary a la Meek's Cutoff happening here for these prairie mistresses. For all their visual verve and way around a joyful non-sequitur, for all their truly resplendent way of committing acts of violence, these stories of the Coens turn out to be as old and dusty as the gold in them thar hills. 

I suppose it's built into the pie (or the stew, to slide us back to our first paragraph's metaphor), but I expected more shake-up from the Coens - I laughed and gee-whizzed at some of their  typical goof-ball antics (and Carter Burwell's music is a real treat, per usual) but nothing here feels terribly vital. There is no "opening scene to A Serious Man" level small storytelling astoundment hanging round. 

And that's before we even get to the film's straight up devilish treatment of its Native Americans, who haunt its edges as horror and that's that, which reads like a forceful head-in-the-sand approach from the Brothers. Yes you can excuse yourself by saying the presentation calls for this kind of old-fashioned approach, but... why? What good is that for? (To quote Maya Rudolph as Dionne Warwick, "To what end?") It's not a good look, boys - mosey up with the times or the times will mosey on without ya.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs plays on October 9th at 8:45 PM and October 14th at 12:00 PM

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Reader Comments (10)

I'm always in the mood for Honey-Bunny!

October 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

LOL Mike I knew saying that here would get that response :)

October 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Coen Brothers put my ass in the seat!!!!

October 7, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

you nailed it Jason... particularly that they need to get on with the times. I liked two of the stories the Time Blake Nelson and the Tom Waitts. The others are whatever.

October 7, 2018 | Registered CommenterMurtada Elfadl

Sorry, not contributing much to the discussion except to laud you for mentioning Meek's Cutoff here. Anything that mentions Kelly Reichardt and/or her underrated oeuvre is great in my book of books.

October 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

The Coens have been off their game since Inside Llewyn Davis. Their last film was a Hollywood pastiche that only worked in places, and it sounds like this one's the same. Not that I won't enjoy it, but I'll be waiting for cable/streaming.

Hey, thanks for shouting out to A Serious Man - my favorite Coen film, one of the most serious and thought-provoking religious films of the last decade... that's simultaneously totally hilarious. Unusual among Coen films in that it's not a genre parody, and it actually reveals some things that are vaguely biographical: they essentially grew up in that 1967 midwestern Jewish community.

October 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

Doctor Strange - ASM is my favorite Coens, having surpassed Fargo on my last watch-through, and I think (or hope anyway) that it'll one day be seen as their #1 by most. It's a tremendous achievement on every single level.

October 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Agree completely, I consider it their best. Not that there aren't four or five other ones that are nearly as good.

But you know, as beautifully realized as the film is - acting, production design, Roger Deakins' photography, music, etc. - the thing that I'm most impressed with is the screenplay. The Coens actually wrote that script from nothing, and there's so much there! They definitely deserved that Best Original Screenplay nomination!

You don't have to be Jewish to love A Serious Man... but it helps!

October 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

Addendum - As you probably already know, there's been a lot of interesting stuff written in response to A Serious Man. Check out this one:

http://www.asharperfocus.com/Serious.html

October 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

Honestly I could watch Tyne Daly looking shocked and appalled for at least the full length of this movie and never get bored, so the fact I only got to watch her do that for at max 20 minutes out of 132 is the real crime.

October 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJes V.

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