The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a compendium film from the Coen Brothers. No characters reoccur in the six sections, but entwined throughout are three themes that I am going to write about here: landscape, performance and death.
This is full of spoilers, so I recommend that you read it after watching the film. It’s available on Netflix right now.
The film opens with a wide shot with Buster (Tim Blake Nelson) himself singing riding a horse. Across all of the six sections, the film is set in a broad, harsh landscape. A landscape that influences and drives the plot. It’s also a film about performance. Buster himself is a singer, and he says this singing “never fails to ease my mind”. But minds are not eased in this film, because everything leads back to death one way or another. In this film, no character is safe and every character is touched by death sooner or later. Coen Brothers films all have this dark edge, but death is not the constant companion in most as it is here.
Buster is no stranger to death. He shoots dead out an entire bar-room of patrons over an insult. In the next bar, he joins a card game, but refuses to play the dead man’s hand (two aces, two eights, held by Wild Bill Hickok when he was shot dead). This results in another shooting, in which, unarmed, Buster kills his opponent (Clancy Brown’s Curly Joe). Buster finally meets his end at the hands of a new, singing, contender – equally skilled, equally stylish, equally charismatic, and Buster is sent flying to the afterlife. Even this opening chapter sees almost a dozen deaths. It’s a theme that comes back through all subsequent sections.
So here, in the first of six stories we have all the key elements that are going to tie this story together. Huge American western landscapes, which influence the lives and decisions of characters, a harsh life being spent in performance, full of artifice and ending abruptly in death.
The western genre, and American history, are both about the untamed land lying to the west, and all of the stories play with this. The land is huge, as in the opening shot before Buster appears on screen. It seems unoccupied, but Native Americans make regular appearances in the film and are themselves forces of nature – almost part of the landscape itself. The land can be hot and unforgiving, as in Near Algodones, the second section, or brushed in forest and snow as in the third, Meal Ticket. Both of these landscapes cause characters to make decisions, especially in the latter where the lack of food leads Liam Neeson’s impresario to desperate measures.
In All Gold Canyon, Tom Waits’s prospector is in regular discussion with nature, singing and shouting as a lonely figure in the huge and seemingly empty landscape, searching throughout it for a speck of gold. In the penultimate story, The Gal Who Got Rattled, the characters are all progressing west across the vast prairie to Oregon. The inability to survive without support in this landscape drives the two lead characters together – one out of concern for other, one out of necessity when faced with the journey alone.
Each story has a key element of performance. Buster Scruggs is a singer from the very opening shot, and every movement he makes is one of a performer. When he kills opponent, Curly Joe, he gets the whole bar to join in a song to celebrate. Buster kills Curly Joe’s brother (Danny McCarthy) by looking back at him in a mirror, both showing off and pointing to Buster’s irrepressible narcissism. This narcissism, and singing, performing strut is taken over by Buster’s killer (‘Frenchman’ – David Krumholtz) who becomes the next legend as the section ends. “You can’t be top dog forever,” as Buster says.
This notion of performance centres on the Meal Ticket story whose armless, legless performer repeats his show nightly for money to keep him and his impresario fed and warm. The snippets of the pieces performed by “Harrison the Wigless Thrush” (Harry Melling) reflect their existence. Harrison and the impresario are the “traveller”s from Shelley’s Ozymandias, they take the roles of Cain and Abel and the Gettysburg Address both places the story in American history, and is connected to the constant theme of death. However, it’s the finale, as the money is collected of Prospero’s speech to close The Tempest that speaks both to this tale and the wider film. This speech is regarded as Shakespeare’s own retirement speech, and finishes with the line “we are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep”. It’s the soliloquy that finishes a play, a career, and life, and Harrison’s own life is soon to be rounded, violently, with a sleep of its own.
The fact that Harrison is replaced by a counting chicken (the prospector wants to know if birds can count: seemingly, yes) could be seen as a comment on the vapidity of the audience, but another way of seeing it is as showing the absurdity of life. Neither is a particular comfort, but both reflect the godless, absurd setting of the film.
In The Gal Who Got Rattled, we see the ‘performance’ of two lovers getting to know one another, ready to start their new life together. We see a dance, acting as a prefiguring of their wedding dance, with a man putting on a show, dancing with a mannequin (a ‘puppeteer’ in the credits, however, as the film will soon show, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is accurately represented by the lifeless puppet in this dance.
In The Mortal Remains, each character is entertaining one another. The singing of the bounty hunters, the story of the trapper, the philosophy of the Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and the religion of the lady (Tyne Daly) are all their contribution to this final journey. This is also the story-telling and singing of a wake, gathered around (or in this case below) the mortal remains of the title. But it’s also a journey to the underworld – people performing for each other for a final time as they reflect on life for a final time.
Life is short and cheap in this film. Buster wipes out an entire barroom of patrons, then a card player and his brother before being killed himself, singing as he floats to heaven on angel’s wings. The bank robber (James Franco) of the second section is hanged, twice (turning as he does the second time to his neighbour and asking “is this your first time?”) the second time successfully, staring into the eyes of a ‘pretty girl’ in front of him. The impresario kills his performer having replaced him with a counting chicken, and the prospector of part three is seemingly killed before actually killing the attempted murderer because the bullet “didn’t hit nothing important”. In part three, to save herself from a worse death after being captured by Indians, Alice kills herself.
All of these reflections on death are brought together In the final section – acting as a wake and journey to the underworld rolled into one. Death is an ever-present character both figuratively and literally with the body on the roof of the coach. The coach itself won’t halt when requested as though it is the unstoppable passage to the afterlife. The lady in the carriage is rejoining her husband after three years but since she’s in mourning dress it suggests she is following him after his death. The bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson) sitting opposite call themselves “reapers” and “harvesters of souls” and all of the five of them try to make sense of life.
Each can only consider people from their own subjective experience. For the trapper (Chelcie Ross) this means people are like the ferrets he catches. For the bounty hunters they try to understand people from the moment of death (with little success) and the religious mourning woman believes that people are either sinning or upright (reflecting the ‘dead or alive’ of the bounty hunter’s job). The Frenchman is the only one to take a step back and question philosophically whether we can ever truly know a person, or whether they love us from this subjective position.
All of this discussion is the deep reflection of the mourners at a wake, sharing stories, songs, philosophy and experience as they try to make sense of life. In the film, as in life, no final answer is given.
Therefore, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a film about the deepest notions of life. The landscape becomes the world we live in. Huge and terrifying like Hobbes’s state of nature, but constant and beautiful at the same time. The only thing that keeps us going is performance: singing, dancing, storytelling, poetry, theatre. In this harsh world, it’s the only thing we can use to make any sense of our existence before our life too is rounded with a sleep.