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Fall Movie Review: 'Ballad Of Buster Scruggs,' And 'At Eternity's Gate'


Rachel, have you gone to the movies recently?


You know, we don't go a lot. But actually, we did the other day. We checked out the new "Grinch." I was into it.

GREENE: Because it feels like movie time, like, November.


GREENE: I saw this great Nick Offerman movie on a plane the other day - "Hearts Beat Loud." But my wife Rose and I have been talking about - it's just like the holidays. It's cold. It's getting dark early. You just want to get into a theater and, like...

MARTIN: Totally.

GREENE: ...Sink into one of those chairs. So Kenneth Turan, our film critic, came here to NPR West yesterday. And I was talking to him about what he's been going to see.

GREENE: Kenny, thanks for coming in. It's always great to see you and talk movies.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: A pleasure - it's a pleasure.

GREENE: So I want to start the conversation with the voice of this guy.


TIM BLAKE NELSON: (As Buster) I'm Buster, Buster Scruggs.

CLANCY BROWN: (As Curly Joe) Buster Scruggs.

NELSON: (As Buster) I'd appreciate it if you'd deposit your weapon in the receptacle by the swinging doors, which concealing of it on your person in the first place was a violation of the rules of this establishment and an offense against local norms.


TURAN: (Laughter).

GREENE: All right. So that's "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs" from the Coen brothers. I guess I should ask you first, who is Buster Scruggs?

TURAN: Well, Buster Scruggs is introduced as a singing cowboy. You see him on his horse, ambling through the wide west, singing. He's in immaculate white clothing, big white hat. And he looks like a classic, you know, old-fashioned singing cowboy. But it turns out - because the Coen brothers don't do anything straight...

GREENE: Of course.

TURAN: It turns out that he's like the singing cowboy from hell.

GREENE: (Laughter) OK. Well, so is this classic Coen brothers? I mean, are we talking like, "Fargo," "No Country For Old Men," or is this different in some way?

TURAN: Yeah. I mean, it is classic Coen brothers. And they've liked the western before. They did a version of "True Grit." They're western fans. And this film uses a lot of classic western tropes. You know, there's, you know, a stagecoach ride, Indian attack, you know, lynching mobs, all this stuff that we associate with the West. But the Coen brothers put their own twist on it. You know, it's kind of bleakly humorous in the classic Coen brothers way. And they're such good writers. You can even hear it in that clip.

GREENE: Yeah, I love it.

TURAN: You know, they won the Best Screenwriting Award in Venice with this film. And it's really, really a written film.

GREENE: It's a bunch of vignettes, right?

TURAN: It's vignettes. It's like an omnibus film. It's six different stories that kind of connect to each other. And it's just - you know, if you like the Coen brothers, if you like westerns, you know, there's a lot to just make you - I'm smiling just thinking about it.

GREENE: I can tell that you like this film. Yeah.

TURAN: There's a lot to smile about in this film.

GREENE: Is there a favorite vignette from the film that just stood out to you?

TURAN: The last one really appealed to me. The last one's a little unusual. It's the stagecoach. There's five people on the stagecoach, kind of like the old John Ford movie. Two of them are bounty hunters. Three of them are regular passengers. And there starts to feel something strange about this coach and this coach ride. It kind of gets a "Twilight Zone" feeling. Then you say, where is this coming from? So that's one that really took me by surprise. And that was also a favorite.

GREENE: All right. "Ballad Of Buster Scruggs" is the new Coen brothers movie. Another film I wanted to ask you about that came out this month - this is the story of Vincent Van Gogh. This is Willem Dafoe playing the artist. Let's give a listen here.


WILLEM DAFOE: (As Vincent Van Gogh) I am my paintings. I'd like to share my vision with people who can't see what I see the way I see.

MADS MIKKELSEN: (As priest) Yes, but why?

DAFOE: (As Vincent Van Gogh) Because my vision is closer to the reality of the world. I can make people feel what it's like to be alive.

GREENE: OK, so that's from the new film "At Eternity's Gate." And, Kenny, I should say the clip we played there, he actually had the bandage over his ear, which makes me wonder how they deal with the famous ear...

TURAN: (Laughter).

GREENE: ...Incident in this movie.

TURAN: Well, you don't see it happening. But through CGI, it looks like he doesn't have an ear. Yeah, this is a remarkable film. It's a very unusual film. Willem Dafoe, who's - veteran actor, 30 years experience, you know, played everything from a villain in "Spiderman" to Christ.


TURAN: He has really covered the waterfront. But this is one of - I think one of his best performances. He just goes so deeply into Van Gogh's character. You really feel like you're watching the person. You don't say, boy, what a great performance. You really feel like you're in the...

GREENE: This is Van Gogh.

TURAN: Exactly. You feel this is Van Gogh.

GREENE: I suppose with some - with a character like Van Gogh in a life - I mean, there are different choices to make about how to address this life in a film. Which direction did this go?

TURAN: Well, it's interesting because the director is Julian Schnabel, who is a celebrated painter himself.

GREENE: Oh, interesting.

TURAN: And this is really - it's only partly a biography of Van Gogh. In part, it's a story of what it's like to be an artist. And that's why that clip that started out with is so interesting because in the film, he's talking to a priest played by Mads Mikkelsen who has to decide whether he should be released from an asylum or not. And you can see that the priest thinks that Van Gogh is a terrible painter, not really a painter at all. But you get Van Gogh talking about what it means to him to make art and how this is like if he couldn't make art, he couldn't be alive. And you get a real feeling of what it feels like to be that way, to be an artist, to just have to express yourself that way no matter what anyone thinks.

GREENE: Kenny, one thing I've read about this film is the camera work is really unique.

TURAN: Well, it's very inventive. It really kind of goes all-out to kind of, really, immerse you in Van Gogh's world. Benoit Delhomme, who's the cinematographer - I mean, there are - very odd things happen. I mean, the director, Julian Schnabel, encouraged him to put on the character's pants - Van Gogh's pants - and walk around with them...


TURAN: ...Pointing his camera down, walking and walking and walking and walking. Schnabel found some glasses, literally, in a thrift store, that kind of distorted vision a lot. And he put them on the camera lens at one point.

GREENE: Oh, so we're almost living as Van Gogh...


GREENE: ...As viewers.

TURAN: That's a very good way to put it. We're living as Van Gogh.

GREENE: Does it work for you?

TURAN: Yeah. I mean, it's different, but you get it. I mean, Van Gogh was such an unusual person, such an unusual vision, so out of time. I mean, the title of the film means that he thinks about eternity. He's not thinking so much by the end about what the people next to him think of his art. He's making art for eternity with his own particular vision. And this film gives you even a visual sense of what that vision must have been like.

GREENE: So these are movies we've heard a good bit about. Are there any hidden gems out there that you feel like we might miss were it not for you to bring to our attention here?

TURAN: (Laughter) Well, there's one that comes to mind because - I mean, in some ways, it's not hidden. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. But in terms of American audiences, I'm afraid they will skip over it. It's called "Shoplifters." It's by great Japanese director Kore-Eda. And it's a quiet film. You know, he's a master director. But he doesn't overdo things. He doesn't hit things too hard. They're personal, emotional - in this case, a family drama. And as the film goes on, we find out more things about this family. They are not the family you think they are. But in some ways, they're more than the family you think they are. This is a film that really kind of looks into, what does family mean? What are the responsibilities? It's just really, really interesting. And it feels so real, so human. I mean, this is Kore-Eda's gift. And more people should see this film because it'll make them happy.

GREENE: All right. There's the advice. Kenny, always great talking to you, thanks for coming in.

TURAN: Oh, thank you, David. It's a pleasure.


GREENE: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for us here at MORNING EDITION and also for the Los Angeles Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "QUAIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 27, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous headline incorrectly spelled Scruggs as Sruggs.