Directed by the Coen Brothers
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is about death, even as it starts as a broad comedy and certainly as it transitions into a surreal drama.
It’s a Coen Brothers’ comedy in the mostly in the style of Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Intolerable Cruelty. Also O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Hail, Caesar! These are broad but intelligent slapstick movies in contrast with their more grim dramas like Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men.
Buster Scruggs contains six short films all set in the west. They’re all uniquely funny, though some are much more broad than others. The first, which introduces us to the singing, gunslinging, sunny disposition’d Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is silly, catchy, and immensely rewatchable.
A later story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” follows an innocent, doomed romance between Alice (Zoe Kazan) and Billy (Bill Heck). “All Gold Canyon” concerns a prospector (Tom Waits) whose actions wax poetic about the process of panning for gold more than the gold itself. Another story, “Meal Ticket,” is incredibly bleak and similarly doomed while the final short, “The Mortal Remains” is a dark, ominous fairytale.
The funniest of them all might be the second story, “Near Algodones” in which an outlaw (James Franco) attempts what he thinks will be an effortless robbery of a bank in a desolate valley, but the teller (Stephen Root) is surprisingly prepared, in a Home Alone way.
All of these stories concern death. In some cases it’s meant to be amusing, others tragic, but the common denominator is its inevitability. Not all the heroes die, but their mortality is certainly something to be reckoned with, and watching these short stories unfold it’s hard not to be aware of how things end.
Going down the list, Buster Scruggs shoots a few people dead and is then eventually shot dead himself. He’s a happy-go-lucky psychopath, it seems, who’s quick with a tune and quicker on the draw. When it’s his time to go out, he and the man who kills him will sing “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” as Scruggs’ harp-playing spirit drifts into the sky.
It’s a sequence both surreal and surprisingly moving, considering the broad comedy of the story until then. Scruggs is a character unconcerned with killing and, it turns out, being killed. It’s all part of the game, and all that matters is that he enjoyed himself some while playing it.
In “Near Algodones,” James Franco plays a suntanned, heavy-browed outlaw, a predator who has identified his prey in the lonely bank teller. The story is something like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, with Franco’s outlaw outsmarted almost cosmically because of his poor intentions.
He will nearly escape his capital punishment only to later be caught and strung up to hang once more. With the man beside him mourning his fate, the outlaw will calmly, amusingly ask him, “first time?” It’s the confidence of a man who has faced death only to escape it each time, and with such confidence we may expect him to escape it once more. He doesn’t, instead noting a beautiful woman in the audience with his dying gaze, and this re-contextualizes his self-assuredness. It’s thus not that he knew he would live that made him so confident but that he was okay dying.
In “Meal Ticket,” we follow a limbless performer (Harry Melling) and his, I suppose, manager (Liam Neeson), a duo who travels from town to town. Their audiences slowly dwindle and with it their fortunes. It’s winter, and we’re shown all the hardships they face on a daily basis. For Neeson’s character to help his performer with even the most basic tasks, defecating and eating, requires complete attention.
From the start we understand how much the performer depends on his manager, and as their fortunes fade it’s not hard to see that the performer is doomed, his value tied only to the money he brings in. When Neeson’s character identifies another traveling showman and his chicken, he buys him out and for a brief time the limbless performer and the chicken share the ride. Soon enough, of course, the limbless performer is gone. Though we don’t see what happens, it is strongly implied he is dropped in a river. We are then reminded that in a money-driven world you are only valuable as a commodity. Death, in this sense, reframes how you might view life, not as a journey to be enjoyed (as in the first two stories), but as a series of chores.
“All Gold Canyon” blends some of the first three stories, at least as far as theme is concerned. Here is a gold prospector (Waits), whose booming voice announces itself before we see him. The beautiful, lush valley is full of natural wildlife who soon vacate when he shows up.
He will carefully pan for gold in the river before finding more and more flecks which lead him closer and closer to a life-changing fortune. It takes him a long time to get there, but the prospector seems quite content with the process. Once he stumbles upon the gold he will be shot in the back by a cowboy who had apparently been following him for sometime with the intention of stealing the fruits of his labor.
The prospector, however, only plays dead long enough to get the upper hand on the young cowboy and shoot him dead. It’s a hopeful ending for the elated old man who then rides off with his life-changing fortune.
In this story death is just as near, but the prospector’s hard labor-filled life is enjoyed all the same. He is in search of the same financial fortune as the Neeson character in the previous story, but he takes his time getting there, and his happiness stays constant throughout the journey. In other words the gold is nice, but the prospector doesn’t need it to define his value.
In “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” Alice (Zoe Kazan) and her brother set out on a long journey towards Oregon as part of a parade of wagons. Alice is to be married to a man in business with her brother, but when he dies she must reevaluate her plans. Billy Knapp (Heck), who along with Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) has helped lead the expedition, will take a liking to her and soon propose marriage.
Their relationship soon blossoms as both parties admit to a shared uncertainty about themselves and the world. Alice mentions how her brother was so certain about everything, and Knapp suggests that might be a bad thing, there’s already enough certainty in the world.
It’s a sweet, sincere relationship which is cut short when Alice makes an understandable but ill-fated decision in the heat of the moment. As she and Mr. Arthur are attacked by a Native American warrior raid, Mr. Arthur gives her a gun and tells her to shoot herself should survival look impossible. Sure enough the walls close in, but Mr. Arthur is able to use some last-second trickery to save their lives. He returns to Alice and sees that she has shot herself, per his instructions, as it looked like he had died. It’s thus a Romeo & Juliet-esque misunderstanding which dooms her, and thus Knapp too whom we never see receive the news but already know the devastation he will feel.
The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” is set up like a joke (a bunch of people of different nationalities stuffed into a stagecoach), but as the ride chugs along it takes on new meaning. Two of the men in the carriage turn out to be bounty hunters or, really, grim reapers. It seems they are escorting the rest in the carriage to their deaths.
It’s a surreal, unsettling and effective coda to the film as a a whole. The characters relationship with death grows more grim as the movie moves along. In the final two stories death is tragic and then unsettling. This contrasts with the earlier stories in which death was accepted as a part of life, the process, etc.
It’s because of the kind of mundanity of death early on that it seems it’s nothing to be scared of. It’s a scientific inevitability, but that’s when we regard it from the outside, or from this side. Later on we will be made to experience death alongside the characters. In “The Gal Who Got Rattled” we are made to invest in the relationship between Alice and Knapp and thus to lose something when she dies. In “The Mortal Remains” we take the journey to the grave right alongside the characters, watching them reckon with what it seems is about to happen and has already happened. This is in very stark contrast with the death of Buster Scruggs, all romantic and musical as he plays his harp to heaven.
In the final story there is no heaven. Rather than the clear skies and open vista we have a vision-obscured night and a gothic, casket-like resting place.
Up Next: High Sierra (1941), The Lego Movie (2014), Amarcord (1973)