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NYFF Film Review: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Is a Thematically Charged Anthology Showcasing Tim Blake Nelson


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs2018 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: In the offbeat, quirky nature of all Coen Brothers outings, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” has the life and energy we’ve come to love from the writing/directing duo.  Saturated with comical beats and heavenly production values, the film manifests its own identity, standing out in a year full of impressive cinema.  With vivacious performances from Tim Blake Nelson and Tom Waits emerging as the most memorable, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” equals up to a merry and ultimately enjoyable outing at the movies.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” tells six different stories from the wild frontier, all titled with their own set of themes: The first, which shares the overall film title, tells the story of a sharp-shooting songster (Tim Blake Nelson).  “Near Algodones” shows a wannabe bank robber (James Franco) who gets his due and then some.  “Meal Ticket” is a gothic tale about two weary traveling performers (played by Liam Neeson and Harry Melling).  “All Gold Canyon” is a simple yet compelling tale about a prospector (Tom Waits) mining for gold.  “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” tells the story of a woman (Zoe Kazan) who finds an unexpected promise of love, along with a dose of life’s cruel irony, on a wagon train across the prairies.  Finally, in “The Mortal Remains,” a Lady (Tyne Daly) rains judgment upon a motley crew of strangers undertaking a final carriage ride with ghostly laughs.

As an anthology, you look for the connection between all the stories and search for their connectivity regarding themes and character structure.  Against the backdrop of the old West, the film manages to find its kinship to a successful resolution.  Not all the tales mainly work in execution.  The best of the batch is the initial entry “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”  With a showstopping performance from the underrated and undervalued Tim Blake Nelson, the tale musters the most laughs and entertainment of all the stories combined.  I would have watched an entire six-hour special with Nelson helming.  The worst of the bunch is “Meal Ticket” with an oddly placed Liam Neeson but very active Harry Melling, who tries to elevate a narrative that doesn’t seem to fit in the motif.

buster francoTom Waits work as the Prospector showcases an animation and dedication that we haven’t seen of him before.  Rattled by conquest and ascertainment, Waits dives head first into a story that dialogue isn’t really the driving force rather than the actions taking place.  James Franco surprisingly shines in a Coens film, where normally he wouldn’t necessarily be suspected to fit.  He finds his subdued abilities as an actor put to good use while Zoe Kazan leads a charge of depth in “The Gal Who Got Rattled.”  It’s one of her more delectable performances yet.

Tyne Daly selects her words and emotions carefully in “The Mortal Remains,” while partnering with a duo of brilliant performers such as Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill.  Playing to a higher theme that the film reaches for regarding life after death, there’s much more weight in the chapter than what is suggested, and will likely be found stronger in a second or third watch.

scruggs4 e1538730587746Joel Coen & Ethan Coen assemble another splendid team of brilliance.  As can only be expected these days, Bruno Delbonnel‘s eye for the unknown while deciding to focus solely on something obscure measures up to another powerful demonstration of the lens.  Same to be said for Carter Burwell‘s intimidating yet sensitive score that adds to the film’s comedy and dramatic tones consistently.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” finds the enthusiasm in its provocative personas.  Each person, grossly unique yet commonly familiar, the movie stimulates the viewer for its boisterous moments and subdued notes.  It’s another stamp of approval for a dynamic pair of filmmakers we should be cherishing with every single outing.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is distributed by Netflix and opens in theaters on Nov. 6.

GRADE: (★★)

Be sure to check out the Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS” ranks among the contenders!

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Written by Clayton Davis

Clayton Davis is the esteemed Editor and Owner of Born in Bronx, NY to a Puerto Rican mother and Black father, he’s been criticizing film and television for over a decade. Clayton is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association where he votes and attends the kick off to the awards season, the Critics Choice Awards. He also founded the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association, the first Latino-based critics’ organization in the United States. He’s also an active member of the African-American Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Online, International Press Academy, Black Reel Awards, and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Clayton has been quoted and appeared in various outlets that include The New York Times,, Variety, Deadline, Los Angeles Times, FOX 5, Bloomberg Television, AOL, Huffington Post, Bloomberg Radio, The Wrap, Slash Film, and the Hollywood Reporter.


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