The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Sends The American Dream To The Gallows
Don’t be fooled by the white hat, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is surprisingly brutal. Where I’ve previously written about the America that never was, the Coen brothers took the concept one step further by shooting that dream out of the sky and then leaving it for dead in the desert. While it’s exciting to get an anthology-style movie set in the American west, it’s content is certainly dark enough to qualify as yet another addition to the long history of horror anthology films; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels just as at home in existential horror as does in the western genre. Where better to contemplate mortality, morals, and human nature than through the lens of the wild west? It works so well it’s honestly surprising it hasn’t been done more often.
The Coen brothers are known for their uncanny ability to highlight the merciless absurdism of the human condition, along with their ability to subvert genres. Buster Scruggs is as much a parody of its genre, with its cartoon-like scenarios that mostly end in ironic and brutal deaths, as it is one of the more traditional westerns we’ve seen in years; full of ruthless men at odds with the righteous gunslingers and optimistic frontiersmen, punctuated with everything from stereotypical Native Americans foes to passive animal witnesses. But it’s through adhering to this traditional structure that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs so brilliantly sneak-attacks some of our traditional American values – a savage criticism on how we’ve managed to spin our worst qualities into something to aspire to.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs can be divided into three distinct themes, or “sins,” with a final chapter that ties it all together with a big macabre bow. (This is your spoiler warning.) The first of these sins of Americana is entitlement. The film opens of course with the titular Buster Scruggs, played to folksy perfection by Tim Blake Nelson. He comes across as a Gene Autry-esque white hat cowboy, who greets the audience with a rousing rendition of “Cool Water” while riding through a canyon. It’s the most straight forward and obviously comic chapter of the bunch, but Scrugg’s lightning fast draw and merciless gunslinging keeps it from ever being too cheery.
Scruggs, like the heart of the American myth, is the embodiment of can-do optimism. Self-assured, powerful and lethal, he’s so confident in his abilities that he even manages to break the fourth wall where none of the other characters seem to be able to. That anybody could ever out-draw him doesn’t even cross his mind, that is until it quite literally passes through his mind in the form of a bullet through his skull. That this traditional white hat singing cowboy figure is killed by a long-haired black hat cowboy who then sings a more country-style ballad is about as overt as the Coens get – it’s the death of the traditional cowboy ideal and the evolution of the modern western in a nutshell.
In “Near Algodones” we follow another cowboy, played by James Franco, who similarly seems to have no concept of failure. He’s the picture of male swagger, surviving off of brazen action and the expectation that it will work out in the end because he’s special. After a bank robbery attempt gone wrong, Franco wakes up with a noose around his neck and one minute left to live but even then he still has no real sense of regret or remorse. Dumb luck manages to save him from this initial hanging, but he’s quickly undone by another man with his same outlook on life – a cattle rustler who brazenly leaves Franco in the lurch to hang for his crime. Yet even standing at the gallows Franco clearly expects it all to work out in his favor again, joking with the weeping man next to him (“First time?)” and sizing up a young woman in the crowd of onlookers as a potential conquest. It’s the audience’s expectation as much as the cowboy’s to predict another last minute save. Yet, as the hangman pulls the lever and the screen cuts to black, “Near Algodones” proves to be a darkly humorous incrimination of the privilege and entitlement of the American man.
Where would America be without our love of getting rich quick? Of course the true cost of gaining such riches – such as exploiting and enslaving millions, not to mention polluting irreplaceable land to the point that it’s now uninhabitable – is never mentioned in the promotion of said dream. In “The Meal Ticket,” a limbless orator (Harry Melling) under the employ of a seedy impresario (Liam Neeson) makes their living by reciting poetry and writing, from Shelley’s "Ozymandias" to Bible verses to the Gettysburg Address, to whatever crowd has gathered to stare. But when the greatest works of man and God fail to pull a crowd as large as a novelty chicken act, the orator is quickly disposed of and his fowl rival acquired. It’s a lesson about the cruelty of greed, and a stark reminder that the promotion of beauty is merely the side effect of consumerism – success is rarely based on merit.
Continuing on “greed,” Tom Waits snagged one of the best chapters all for himself. In “All Gold Canyon” we follow a grizzled old prospector (Waits) who upon finding a pristine untouched wilderness, immediately ruins it. As he digs for an elusive gold vein in the earth, he is seemingly unaware of how much his presence has disturbed the landscape and wildlife around him. Then, in an ironic parallel to his own actions to the earth, he gets ambushed and shot in the back by a stranger looking to capitalize off of his hard work. After a brief struggle he is forced to leave the valley in search of medical help; passing the holes he's put into the earth as he himself struggles with the large hole put through his own chest by his fellow man. It's the death of them both, the area for its gold which will surely be exploited and ruined once word gets out, and the prospector who will most likely not survive his gaping wound.
We move on then to the frontier, where the west holds the promise of land, opportunity, fortunes, and a looming lawlessness. The American desire to tame the wilderness brings with it the need to establish law and order, it’s a concept that rules the vast majority of the western genre. But dogmatically adhering to the rules brings its own sets of pitfalls which have helped to corrupt as much as they have provided a guideline. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” follows Alice (Zoe Kazan) and Gilbert Longabaugh (Jefferson Mays), a brother and sister who are moving west in order to marry into a more stable and monied life. Gilbert is a hard-nosed decisive blowhard, while Alice is shy and anxiety ridden to the point of near-paralysis. After Gilbert dies suddenly, Alice is thrown into a world of uncertainty, relying heavily on wagon trail driver Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) to help her make decisions for herself.
The specter of Alice’s brother seems to loom over her thoughts, and she finds herself continually circling back to what he would do or say. She’s also haunted by Gilbert’s small rat terrier named Franklin Pierce, who continues to bark incessantly throughout the journey – echoing the loudmouth president whose anti-abolitionist decisions lead to his own party abandoning him. Billy tries to encourage her to believe in herself, but Alice readily lapses into whatever suggestion comes her way, including a marriage proposal from Billy. The one time she does stray on her own, she stumbles into the middle of an advancing Native American war party. With only one man to defend her against a gang of attackers, she’s handed a gun and told to end her life if he should die. By the end of the chapter she lays dead, having defaulted to her dogmatic teachings and made an irreversible decision where, for once, she should have faltered. Her death is not only pointless, it’s downright pathetic.
Now that we’ve shot, hung, and buried the tenets of the American dream, that leaves us with confronting the concept of the dream itself. The brilliant last chapter, “The Mortal Remains,” serves as a sort of Stagecoach-cum-“A Stop at Willoughby” – where staying on the coach appears to be safer than arriving at the destination. A passenger wagon carries a Frenchman, a pious woman and a mountain man across the plains, along with an Englishman (Jonjo O'Neill) and an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson) on the other end of the coach. The conversation quickly lapses into lofty questions of humanity, with the three passengers sharing their radically different world views on the true nature of man.
Their lively discussion gets cut off when the two men admit to being “reapers,” or bounty hunters if you will. The Englishman professes that they acquire their subjects through lively storytelling, he engages their target as a distraction while the Irishman “does the thumping.” To these reapers the concept of what types of men there are is inconsequential, for as the Englishman says with a grin: “In our business there’s two kinds of people: dead or alive.” It’s then that they arrive at their destination, with the rest of the coach watching as the reapers carry their cargo, a dead body, up a staircase into the light. The rest of the riders are left to mull their experience in the limbo that is the hotel at Fort Mason.
The American dream is about achieving the most of everything around you. But that dream, as is every dream, is merely a deferral from the truth that nothing will last. What are man’s achievements if not an attempt to ward off the chill of the inevitable death that faces us all? Westerns have become the heart of the Americana myth, tales we desperately want to believe existed in a time that was somehow “better” or more righteous than our own. We believe the myth of man taming nature, and that the codes of honor these men kept will help guide us to being more successful or keep us on the straight and narrow. But like the reapers’ stories, these are less guidelines for how to live and more distractions to draw our eye from the terrors that be. Whether that’s the terrors of the truth of the past, the terrors existing within the world of the film or book that are glossed over to promote the positive attributes of the character or story, or the terrors we’re running from in our own lives and timelines.
Yeah, it’s not much of a high note to end on. So I’ll leave you with a quote from good ol’ Buster Scruggs himself: “There's just gotta be a place up ahead, where men ain't low down, and poker's played fair. If there weren't, what are all the songs about? I'll see y'all there. And we can sing together and shake our heads over all the meanness in the used to be.”
There’s just gotta be… right?