The Coen Project Part 18: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Coming to you live from a new ortholinear split keyboard that I don’t fully know how to use. I’m hoping that my new inability to type over ten words per minute will knock some well of latent creativity loose in my brain. I am as of yet unclear on how to write a parentheses or an exclamation point, so this may be a fruitful exercise in prosaic economy. We’ll see how it goes.

In 2018 The Coen Brothers did the most 2018 thing possible, joining the wave of Netflix auteurism with a western anthology film, something they most likely wouldn’t have been able to get away with in a traditional release.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs consists of six short films, each exploring a different facet of the Western genre. While the shorts range from serious to outright cartoony, there’s one obvious throughline — they’re dark. Really dark, even for the Coens. It’s tempting to think that the directors have arrived at some kind of nihilistic logical extreme, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I’d argue that the relentless and at times uncomfortable bleakness of Buster Scruggs is more a product of its format than any other factor.

Due to the nature of our work, my friends and I are shown more animated short films than the average citizen. The ones we see are usually well made, but over the years we’ve noticed that they frequently border on emotional manipulation. Why? My working theory is that in order to stand out in a competitive field of shorts, creators feel the need to pack a feature-length level of emotional impact into a running time of under ten minutes.

The Buster Scruggs shorts operate similarly, but with violence and death instead of emotionalism. If you’ve only got less than twenty minutes, something has to happen, and it takes a lot longer to earn a happy ending without being trite.

I’m not going to go into all of them in equal depth into all of the shorts, but I’ll try to touch on how they build on each other thematically. After several watches, it became clear to me that Buster Scruggs is about people facing death and what comes after death. Each short gives us a different version of this through the lens of a different familiar western trope.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The title track of the anthology combines the blood-drenched depravity of Westworldwith the cheerful goofiness of singing cowboy heroes like Roy Rodgers, or more recently, Hobie Doyle.

Taken by itself, this is mostly a fun musical experiment and an excuse to let Tim Blake Nelson do his thing for seventeen minutes. But after a second viewing I realized that Scruggs introduces the major thematic thread of the anthology.

When Buster Scruggs is ultimately defeated by a newer singing sharpshooter, his soul leaves his perforated body and floats up to heaven on literal wings as he sings the Oscar-nominated song “When a Cowboy Gets His Wings”.

In voiceover, this is how Buster Scruggs frames his death:

I’ll see all of you sonofaguns in the bye and bye and we can sing them sweet airs together, and shake our heads over all that meanness in the used-to-be.

This feels a little odd because we just saw him murder a whole bunch of people. Buster does not apparently subscribe to a transactional theological model.

Near Algodones

The second short features James Franco as a bank robber who goes through an alternating series of lucky and and unlucky occurrences. After cheating death several times, he finally ends up sentenced to death by hanging for a crime he didn’t commit.

Here we get our next version of a confrontation with death. The robber is remarkably chill about it. Next to the him on the gallows is an old man who is crying uncontrollably out of fear. The robber looks over and remarks: “First time?”.

For me this short is mostly significant for its inclusion of one of the great Coen-isms, “sumbitch”, which has made appearances in Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Art Thou.

Meal Ticket

I will be honest: I spent the majority of this short’s run time screaming “IS THAT LIAM NEESON???” at my laptop screen.

Yes Christine, that is Liam Neeson, playing a sideshow impresario whose sole attraction is a limbless man (Harry Melling), listed in the credits as “The Artist,” who dramatically recites various passages from the English canon.

If the average person’s life in the Coen Brothers’ West is pretty bad, try being disabled. The Artist is smarter than the impresario, but has no power in their dynamic due to his physical difference. His talent appears superhuman to his audience, but he’s treated as sub-human, ultimately replaced by a literal animal.

The Artist’s death scene isn’t even shown on screen. Because he has no autonomy as a person, he doesn’t get to confront death on his own terms. Like his life, his death is orchestrated by those born with more power than him.

All Gold Canyon

All Gold Canyon offers a welcome relief from the literal and spiritual darkness of Meal Ticket — it’s a master class in landscape cinematography that made me angry I missed the film in theaters. They clearly had to lean pretty heavily into CG to execute it, but it’s beautifully done. Definitely better use of a CGI deer than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (never forget).

Plot-wise, it’s a man-versus-nature story that turns into a man-versus-man story. An old prospector (Tom Waits) painstakingly figures out the location of a vein of gold, only to be ambushed by an opportunistic thief.

The prospector comes out on top in the struggle despite getting shot in the stomach: “IT WENT CLEAN THROUGH! IT DIDN’T HIT NOTHING IMPORTANT”. Our geriatric hero faces down death and beats it fair and square.

This us our first and only happy ending of the anthology. And boy is it gonna go downhill from here.

The Gal Who Got Rattled

The Gal Who Got Rattled is the most fully realized story of the anthology, but it falls most unfortunately victim to the short film syndrome I mentioned earlier. This segment is so good, yet has such an unfair bummer of an ending.

The titular Gal is Alice Longabough (Zoe Kazan), sister of Gilbert Longabough (Jefferson Mays). Both Longaboughs are heading to Oregon via wagon train, looking forward to a theoretical business opportunity for Gilbert and a theoretical prospect of marriage for Alice when they get there.

Alice is smarter than her brother but has to endure his condescension and play along with his bone-headed schemes for the sake of her own survival. When Gilbert dies on the trail, Alice is forced to deal with his posthumous business ineptitude.

A chance to escape this joke of a life happens when Alice meets Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), a trail hand who feels similarly trapped in his situation. What follows is an incredibly sweet series of interactions that make Alice’s ultimate death pretty much unbearable to witness. Zoey Kazan and Bill Heck do way too good of a job making us love these people.

If this were a feature length effort, I’d have to imagine we’d get a happy or at least happier ending for our ultra-endearing romantic pairing. There would be plenty of dark moments along the way to temper the ultimate victory.

Despite leaving me feeling personally victimized, Gal gets to the meat of what the anthology has been hinting at thematically. A lot of this plays out in conversations between Alice and Billy. Alice explains her late brother’s worldview in contrast to her own experience.

He had very fixed political beliefs. All of his beliefs were quite fixed, even those that…fortune did not tend to endorse. He would upbraid me for being ‘wishy-washy’. I never had his certainties. I suppose it’s a defect.

Billy has spent enough time dealing with the hardships of the trail to know Gilbert’s certitude is an illusion:

Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones. Wanting their comfort.

This sentence could work as a thesis statement for much of the Coen’s filmography. It reminds me of the opening monologue from Blood Simple:

But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year– something can always go wrong.

In light of this conversation, the ending of Gal at least makes sense — it’s a harsh enforcement of the truth of Billy’s outlook.

Billy also says the following:

Uncertainty——that is appropriate for the matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty.

He’s talking about the afterlife, but it’s not clear if he means that he’s certain that there is one and he knows what it’s going to be, or that he won’t be certain about anything until he actually gets there and finds out. Buster Scruggs got to take his afterlife for granted. Is Billy correct in doing the same?

The Mortal Remains

Saul Rubinek is Frenchman, Tyne Daly is Lady, and Chelcie Ross is Trapper in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

The last short takes place in a stagecoach headed to Fort Morgan and consists mostly of a conversation among five characters. They are an old trapper (Chelcie Ross), a married religious lady (Tyne Daly), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and two bounty hunters: Thigpin (Jonjo O’Neil) and Clarence (Brendan Gleeson).

Mortal Remains is a discussion of the theme present in all of the prior shorts: the human confrontation with death. The journey of the stagecoach and its arrival at the Fort Morgan hotel is an allegory for this confrontation. Once I figured this out, every line of dialogue and character action took on a clear significance.

At the beginning of the characters’ discussion, it is mentioned that only the bounty hunters have been to Fort Morgan before. For the other three, it’s their first time. The bounty hunters sit on the opposite side of the stagecoach from the others, giving us a clear visual barrier. Thigpin and Clarence have experienced death, the others haven’t.

The three non-bounty hunter characters express differing theories about humanity.

The Trapper believes that people are fundamentally knowable:

People are like ferrets. Or a beaver. All pretty much alike…I don’t doubt it’s the same even if you travel to Siam.

The Lady pushes back against this idea, asserting that people are not all alike, but instead are distinguished by their morality or lack thereof, as defined by religion:

People are not like ferrets. And I speak not on my own authority, but on that of the Holy Bible.

The Frenchman argues that we can’t actually know each other, only ourselves.

I know we must each spin our own wheel, and play our own hand. I cannot bet for you. Porquoi Pas? I cannot know you, not to this degree… We may call each other friend, but but we cannot know each other so.

The Lady again appeals to moral authority, saying that the Frenchman’s argument is invalid because he has pursued a life of “vice and dissipation”.

Eventually the Lady gets so worked up by the Frenchman’s attack on her reality that she almost passes out. The Frenchman tries to get the driver to stop the stagecoach, but Thigpin flatly informs him that the coachman will not stop. It’s policy. The road to death can’t be halted for anyone.

Once the commotion has died down, Thigpin and Clarence proceed to explain the nature of their work as hired assassins. Their M.O. is that Thigpin tells a story to distract their target so that Clarence can kill them. The stories are crucial to the operation:

People can’t get enough of them, like little children. Because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us, but notus. Not us in the end especially. The Midnight Caller gets him, not me. I’ll live forever.

Stories can distract us like they distract Thigpin and Clarence’s victims. But they also allow us to rehearse life events by living them second hand (us, but not us). This is especially true of death. We’ll only ever experience it once for real, but will have witnessed hundreds of people die on screen and in books before our time comes.

Thigpin goes on to describe the moment his victims die:

It’s always interesting watching them, once Clarence has worked his art. Watching them negotiate the passage… Watching them try to make sense of it as they pass to that other place.

The lady asks him if they ever succeed in making sense of it.

How would I know? I’m only watching.

At this moment the stagecoach abruptly stops — they’ve arrived at Fort Morgan. Thigpin and Clarence hop out and start to haul in their body, but the three passengers are hesitant to go into the hotel and face their (allegorical) deaths.

The Lady states that she must be helped down from the stagecoach. When the trio are at the door, she demands that one of the two men open the door for her. She expects this passage to be laid out for her with no surprises. In both cases, she is helped by the Trapper.

The Frenchman is the last to go in. He watches the stagecoach drive away — no turning back. After a long pause he puts his hat on and then enters the hotel confidently, shutting the doors behind him.

Each of the three characters have an incomplete version of reality, but the Frenchman’s outlook seems to prepare him the best for his confrontation with death and whatever comes after. Animals don’t think about death. We do, and that’s not insignificant. We can’t assume that there’s nothing on the other side, but we can’t act like we know precisely what it is (or isn’t) either. Both are paths of certainty, which Billy Knapp describes as “the easy path”. The Frenchman rejects certainty, so he’s the most equipped to “negotiate the passage” into the unknown.

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