Bill Heck, Tim Blake Nelson, Zoe Kazan, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen with 56th New York Film Festival Director and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Leave it to Joel and Ethan Coen to assemble a cast that includes Tim Blake Nelson, Zoe Kazan (who co-wrote Paul Dano's Wildlife a highlight of the festival), Tyne Daly, Tom Waits, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Bill Heck, and Brendan Gleeson for their latest feature The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs which is screening in the Main Slate of the 56th New York Film Festival.
Ethan Coen with Joel Coen: "We had an oxen wrangler, because we wanted the oxen to do something specific in a take." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
The Coen brothers worked again with longtime collaborators. This is the 16th time with composer Carter Burwell, who started out with Blood Simple, then Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy, and the 13th time with costume designer Mary Zophres (Hail, Caesar!, Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, No Country For Old Men, The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn't There, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski, Fargo).
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs? is a six-part Western anthology: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Near Algodones; Meal Ticket; All Gold Canyon; The Gal Who Got Rattled, and The Mortal Remains.
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, the first episode that also gives the collection its title, is the Coen's take on the singing cowboy sub-genre and one of the wildest rides in the cinema this year. Tim Blake Nelson croons for cool, clear water, rides, shoots, and lifts off to heaven in a way that you will not believe your own eyes.
Near Algodones, the second chapter of the anthology, introduces us to a bank robber, played by James Franco, who ends up with a noose around his neck, not once but twice and much depends on how he holds his peckish horse.
Tim Blake Nelson and Zoe Kazan star in separate chapters in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and share a similar fate. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
With Meal Ticket, the tone shifts from comedy, albeit a bloody brutal, and politically incorrect one, to the tragic allegory of the entertainment business. Liam Neeson, the impresario, travels with his limbless performer (Harry Melling) through the rough wintry landscape out West. Whereas the first two films made me laugh and gasp, this one made me cry at the tenderness when Neeson feeds his artist by the fireside. Things turn much darker soon when a chicken who is very good at maths enters the spotlight.
All Gold Canyon is the gold rush in a nutshell, performed by Tom Waits, accompanied by a stag, an owl, a donkey, fishes in the brook and some butterflies. You can't help but think of the origins of this country, and its future during this segment, tackling nature and greed.
The Gal Who Got Rattled, got a gal in it, Alice Longsbaugh (Zoe Kazan) who starts out on a wagon trail with her brother and his very noisy little dog President Pierce. The brother doesn't make it very far (flies tell us what's up), the dog does, not without causing quite a bit of mayhem. And then there is Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) who has been working the trail for a while and thinks it might be time to settle down so that he doesn't end up like his older colleague Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines), a specialist on many fronts, "Indian warfare" among them. This might be a love story.
Tim Blake Nelson is Buster Scruggs: "It is true, I have to say, if you do a Western you spend 90% of your time dealing and thinking about the horses."
The Mortal Remains completely caught me off-guard with its stagecoach setting and ghostly tone and the beauty of song. When Brendan Gleeson, sitting across from Tyne Daly, begins to sing the old Irish version of The Streets Of Laredo, miraculously everything about this uniquely formed and fantastically tantalising Western trope collection falls into place. The book is closed. Time to feed the animals and tell your own stories at the campfire.
Joel Coen commented on the structure of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs during the press conference: “I think that was an artefact of what a strange animal it is. No one quite knew what to classify it as. We were never considering doing anything else.”
Anne-Katrin Titze: Apropos strange animal, you have horses, a dog, owls, flies very prominently. Any favourite animals you worked with, any least favourite ones?
Joel Coen: Flies are very hard to work with. [the audience bursts out laughing] Yeah, you're right, there are a lot of animals. Maybe that's just the western. Yeah, no, we do tend to sort of load the movies up with domestic animals, don't we? Anyhow it's a Western with horses. It is true, I have to say, if you do a Western you spend 90% of your time dealing and thinking about the horses.
Bill Heck is Billy Knapp in “The Gal Who Got Rattled” of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Ethan Coen: And the oxen. The oxen were new to us. I asked trainers. We had an oxen wrangler, because we wanted the oxen to do something specific in a take. And I asked him if he could do that. And he just sighed. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said: "To drive an oxen is not self-evident."
The 56th New York Film Festival remaining screening of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs: Tuesday, October 9 at 8:45pm - Alice Tully Hall
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs will screen in the London Film Festival as a UK première on October 12.
The 2018 New York Film Festival runs through October 14.