NYFF Review: ‘The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs’

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs | Ethan Coen, Joel Coen | NYFF 2018

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is not only a big deal not only because it’s the latest from The Coen Brothers, but also because it’s a new Coen Brothers movie and it’s being released by Netflix. The times sure have changed.

An anthology film that featured various stories throughout the Western front, you can get a sense throughout that all of them have the spirit and feeling of a mini Coen brothers full-length film of their own.

It just so happens that the first story, also the titular one that kicks off the film just happens to be the best. Featuring Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs, a singing cowboy with a wicked quick draw and accurate shot. This scene sets the bar quite high and I don’t know that the film ever quite matches it. It’s less and insults to the other ones than praise for how well done this one is.

The next one features James Franco as a Bank Robber, with an ending that is equally dark as it is hilarious (very Coen brothers). The story that follows is one that I am still grasping, one that has a bizarre and haunted existential quality to it that features Liam Neeson as a traveling showman who uses the armless and legless young man named Harrison (Harry Melling) who recites poems for dwindling crowds.

Things take a lighter turn with the next story that stars Tom Waits as a gold-hungry prospector and then arguably the second-best story that stars Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, a young woman headed towards Oregon. This story felt complete and whole, with a longstanding narrative arc with a heartbreaking payoff.

Finally, the last story is the most puzzling of all, featuring five people (Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, Jonjo O’Neill, Saul Rubinek and Chelcie Ross) sharing a stagecoach. This story has a strange presence to it, one that didn’t quite land in any way for me, or seemingly the rest of the audience at my screening.

While the stories all succeeded in their own ways, some more so than others, there are enough wild and memorable characters here that have the Coen brothers DNA throughout that make this a fun and lighter addition to their filmography that is surely worth staking out.

Rating: 7.8/10