The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a series of tales that takes every element of previous Coen Brothers’ works and turns it all into some of the best western stories we’ve seen on the screen. With an incredibly well-rounded cast, each piece is kept sparse and as humanly empty as modern times seems to consider it, with most stories only having three or four characters with names at all. Each short tells a different but equally interesting idea that seems to pop right out of a storybook, all of which do.
Buster Scruggs is a great introduction to the stories that the Coens are looking to tell. Comical, sudden, and lawless. Tim Blake Nelson definitely needs more credit. He was born for westerns it seems with him previously appearing in one of the Coen’s previous movies, O Brother Where Art Thou? The continuation of that same vein of absurdist existence is something he plays extremely well into and is a smooth ride all the way through. When we meet Buster, we are given a happy-go-lucky guy who just seems misunderstood.
Tim Blake Nelson plays Scruggs in a fascinatingly depraved way, almost unaware of the world around him, to the point that he’s as desensitized to the violence he’s committing as the audience watching. With his musical affinity and his unwavering assurance of fate on his side, he does seem unstoppable.
His murder of the man in the saloon takes the casual nature of Curly Joe’s demise right into the absurdity that is built on even more with the duel between Buster and “Curly Joe’s brother” (that’s his name in the credits, no joke). Buster’s sauve and flashy kill on the brother is followed immediately by a man on a horse playing the harmonica. When Scruggs is deftly murdered by Willie Watson’s The Kid, a bounty hunter, his angel rising to heaven as they harmonize and the duet is an amusing sight while Scruggs reflects bemusingly that he should have known this day would come when a faster and better gun would show up.
This short was the perfect beginning to the stories yet to come, with the absurdity of Buster’s existence being drawn short by his abrupt death. More absurdity to come through.
I had promised myself that I would almost never enjoy James Franco. However, it’s hard to deny that the man isn’t meant to be a rugged bank robber. He plays silence and hardened cowboy just as well as the rest of the cast. His whole interaction with Stephen Root as the teller of this lonely bank is absolutely amusing and actually elicited a real chuckle for me while watching this alone.
If Root’s Milton has a western ancestor, then we need look no further. His erratic and outrageous time on the screen is great. When the cowboy is leaving the bank, seeing the teller come running at him, covered in pans, screaming “PAN SHOT” every time he’s shot at, was hilarious and a joy to watch the crazy just explode.
When he awakes, noosed and about to be hanged, his simple words of the teller not fighting fair is a great example of the almost tabula rasa of existence these characters experience, only existing in the scope of the story, and never beyond. The fortunate timing of the Native Americans coming and killing the hangmen speaks really well to the Coen Brother’s love of deus ex machina, forcing the viewer to acknowledge the existence of the story that’s being told.
The arrival of the cow rustler saving Franco and subsequently being rearrested is a funny moment that only helps to reveal the careless nature of death that surrounds the stories. The whole story feels like something out of Westworld which ends in much of the same fashion.
The final moments of his life are quite warm actually. His final moments where he sees a pretty girl and simply takes in stock of the simple beauty he found in a pretty girl was quite touching and was maybe my second favorite moment of the whole thing. Simple, amusing, and happily touching in a weird way.
Liam Neeson for me has always been the stoic type and this movie plays into that well. He’s sulking, almost seemingly hunchbacked, and a broken sort of man resigned to a life of traveling and caring for his amputated . . . business partner? Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley, in fact) does a great job as the artist and sells the longing for a more rich existence by just looking into the distance wistfully, a talent I have yet to master. He gives his all and really sells the story of Ozymandias and onward as he poetically recites different stories.
The performance is str. As soon as his first show is over and we see the two together, it’s clear that they have no personal connection at all and no attempt at connection. For these two, it looks like it’s just a job and it makes the tension palpable. Seeing this then followed by Liam Neeson’s drunken stupor and then by spending their money on prostitutes.
It’s sad to see the artist clearly longing for a life he can’t have. His following soliloquy on a life rich in hope. The lessening crowd we see is, at first, just assumed that they are going through small towns that don’t care for oration until we see the chicken impresario, with his “genius chicken”. It’s an interesting statement on modern America as well about trends and the peoples’ ever moving attention to the newest, most interesting thing. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sets us on edge, knowing that it seems that all these stories end in death, and who better than the one who is no longer interesting to the people?
The slow moments we watch with the artist’s confusion to the realization of what’s about to happen is plodding and dreadful, especially with the audience’s benefit of foresight and ability to exist outside the story. With the death of the artist, I feel that one quote encapsulates this story overall. In the words of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger: “The world has moved on”.
This story was for me, the one I felt the least connection. However, if you want to talk about jaw-dropping scenery, this one takes the cake easily. The sweeping mountains and beautiful little valley our story takes place in is gorgeous and truly does feel like a piece of the world untouched.
The prospector, played by Tom Waits, is a great little story that really is a small story about tenacity and a simple life with palpable games. He doesn’t waste time and sets off right away. His purpose is simple and clear and we get the sense that the man is happy what he’s doing. He is happy to be in nature, searching for gold and day after day toiling, waiting for “Mr. Pocket”. His relationship that he feels is quaint and pleasant to watch. When he finally finds the gold, we get a real sense of triumph and we’re on his side, excited for the discovery.
For me, if this story was going to be like the rest, I expected that he would just keep digging forever and never find it, going mad. When he does find it, the subversion was well-done and there was still a sense of cathartic victory. His story may finally turn out differently after all! He found the gold! Oh, wait. This is a Coen Brothers film. Cue the man who’s been waiting him out, preparing for him to take the find. The cold murder of the prospector at this point for me was unsurprising and sat in a sort of limp satisfaction. I almost expected a third person to come along and murder him too but, that never came along. In fact, it turns out, he didn’t kill him at all! Subverted again! When he goes to check the prospector’s body, I really didn’t expect him to still be alive.
It was a welcome change. Also, pocket sand! Who would have thought? It subverts expectations again though because I thought he would die in the hole too. Much to my welcome surprise; he lives and makes off with the gold! I love the final scenes of this story with all the creatures returning to where they were, as though he were never there with the book’s final words being that:
“Only remained the hoof-marks in the meadow and the torn hillside to mark the boisterous trail of life that had broken the peace of the place and passed on.”
Oh boy. This one is a doozy. A classic Coen Brothers love story. When could we ever get a normal story where nothing ever goes on? This one is the longest of them all, taking up the majority of the runtime overall. The story of Alice Longabaugh’s troubling journey across America to Oregon is one that appears to be the most realistic of the bunch, and while not my favorite by any means, it’s probably the most realistic of them all. Her sudden situation of being stuck on her own is one that allows the character to breathe in a new way, not stifled by her brother.
If this were any other story, she would come into her own and become a strong, hardened woman who wasn’t fazed by anything. However, she stays scared, and generally submissive to the world around her almost the whole time. Billy Knapp (hot cowboy extraordinaire) is the perfect caravan wrangler that captures the heart of Alice, at least as much as you can in a Coen Brothers film. His slow build as a tough cowboy looking to settle down was a pleasant arc to watch and plays the astute ranger well. While this story is the longest, I feel the least connected to the characters struggle.
Alice truly is wishy-washy and doesn’t seem to want any control over her life, unsure of how to handle the situation she is in, constantly wandering off or going back for President Pierce. However, it’s interesting that when it comes to saving Alice, it is not Billy, her star-studded knight, but the solemn quiet Mr. Arthur, who spent all of his time taking no care for anyone or anything, only knowing combat when the time arises. Alice’s reaction to the events, killing herself, is at first, a little confusing. Instead, much like Tarantino’s films desensitize violence, the Coen Brothers have done the same.
Alice has never handled a gun in her life, much less been in any remote danger. Her reaction to the events seem clear and make sense given the fact that she threw the gun away the moment it was put into her hand. She was terrified and I have no doubt that given the same situation, most people would be likely to do the same, as much as I wouldn’t want to believe it. Onwards then, to our final story.
This was definitely my favorite story overall. The cramped space of the carriage is wonderful and presents the tension well, as well as the phrase below the picture on the page before the beginning of the story that “the carriage did not stop”. It is amusing as well, seeing the three of them butt heads and grate against each other. The socially unaware trapper who goes on and on, unaware that the other two don’t care at all.
The aristocratic widow, loving of the bible and its ways. The passionately opinionated Frenchman gambler. All three push against each other and shuffle while they fight with each other. However, it is interesting that the two across from the three, played by Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill never seem annoyed. They constantly take interest and are astute in each of their glancings at each other. Revealing that, as they say, “Reapers of souls”, bounty hunters, it becomes suddenly much more interesting to examine the world around them as something more.
Clarence’s song after the widow’s fit is soft and calm. The coach rocks less. This is also the point that it turns to pure night instead of twilight, the moon’s light is all that lights them. This takes on an interesting meaning when Jonjo’s character talks about the distraction and the story. His speech was about connecting stories to themselves. This seems like the Coens’ direct message to the audience. We want to be the characters, but not the characters. They will never die though, remembered through their own stories. Their arrival at Fort Morgan is gaunt, to say the least. The town is only in gray and misty, it makes for a very macabre scene.
The refusal of the guests to enter the hotel is doubly fascinating, as though they have begun to wonder if they have died and this is the end for them. Their sudden uniting as a group, much to their chagrin is simply enjoyable. The lobby of the hotel itself is interesting, with the stairs that Clarence and the Englishman go up, into the bright, white light. The final moments of the Frenchman accepting his fate as his life has taught him, is a great way to end, with a jaunt and a slap of his hat.
Director | Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Producer | Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Megan Ellison, Jillian Longnecker, Sue Naegle
Writer | Ethan Coen, Joel Coen