In their latest venture, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology of dark, comical tales from the American Old West. I found it hugely compelling, hilarious and thought-provoking in its analysis of life on the frontier, and at times a beautiful testament to Americana.
One of the film’s major strengths is its underscoring of how inequitable and cruel life in the Old West often was. In Near Algadones, after narrowly avoiding being strung up after a botched bank robbery, James Franco’s cowboy manages to escape, but is then unfairly accused of castle rustling by a local lawman and hanged for a crime he actually never committed. The naïve business prospects of Alice Longabaugh’s rather inept brother Gilbert sets them on course for Oregon, only to see him fall quickly to cholera and buried in an unmarked grave. Out of fear she would be captured by a tribe of Native Americans in The Gal Who Got Rattled, Alice shoots herself, unaware that the danger had long passed and ending her short, hopeful engagement to cowboy Billy Knapp.
The one slight exception to this theme can be found in All Gold Canyon, and Tom Wait’s compelling portrayal of a prospector. After an arduous and lonesome campaign of searching for gold along the belly of a canyon, he strikes lucky, only to be shot in the back by a young man. In many ways the story feels particularly offensive because of how connected we become to Wait’s character, and his plucky, enduring confidence in finding “Mr Pocket”, his namesake for the pocket of gold he is after. Luckily for the prospector, the bullet passes straight through without hitting any vital organs, and after playing dead momentarily, he is able to kill the young man. While the prospector is able to leave the valley with his hard-earned nuggets of gold, the fable of his story is one that only narrowly avoids being as macabre as the others, if only because of the young man’s poor shooting skills.
However, the cruellest example can be found in the story of Meal Ticket, which depicts the struggles of an impresario (played by Liam Neeson) and his artist, a young Englishman called Harrison who has no arms and legs. The story portrays their travels from town to town on the frontier, with Harrison reciting hours of poetry, essays and songs in front of increasingly dwindling audiences while the impresario collects tips at the end of each performance. Finishing his performance with a recital of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”, there is something particularly beautiful, without being too overt, about this. In the wake of the Civil War and the punitive history of the Reconstruction Era, Harrison’s recital stands as a reminder of the restored union’s ever-present struggle to reach its own high aspirations amidst the mulishness of human nature and the brutalities of everyday life. However, as Harrison’s audience numbers continue to shrink, it is the kind of high rhetoric that would have seemed pretty esoteric for most of the townspeople he and the impresario entertained for, with their appreciation for tragedies and sonnets found somewhat wanting. In this sense, Meal Ticket delivers a clever commentary on the dynamism between highbrow and lowbrow cultures, and one set in particularly desperate circumstances.
One night, the impresario comes across an act involving a chicken who can do basic maths, much to the delight of the local townspeople who press against each other to see the “Calculating Capon”. In the midst of such cruel, unforgiving conditions, it’s easy to see why so many townsfolk preferred watching this kind of entertainment than listen to Harrison recite Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Shakespeare passages, who in comparison to his feathered peer, cuts a lonely figure in the prairie darkness. It is this cold business arithmetic that leads the impresario to replace the young actor with the chicken by drowning him in a river. Moments before this, a particularly poignant framing is found in Harrison and the chicken riding together in the back of the impresario’s wagon. Glancing solemnly at the chicken, you get the sense that Harrison feels his time is coming to an end, his own eloquent musings cut short at the hand of a bird who can do basic math.
While there is something possibly merciful about the impresario’s decision to kill Harrison, recognising a legless, armless young man would not survive long in the hostilities of the Old West, there are hints that the impresario is more affluent than he appears. When he buys the chicken from the other entertainer, he pulls out an impressive wad of cash for the transaction, and while himself and Harrison are seemingly struggling to make ends meet in the face of such small audiences, the impresario treats himself to a night in a brothel. In comparison to the real desperation of other characters in Buster Scruggs, the impresario’s decision to kill Harrison may have had more to do with wishing to save a little cash by taking the artist out of the picture altogether, swapping Harrison’s bean stews for cheap birdseed. Standing as one of the movie’s stronger shorts, it stands as a clever testimony to the savage nature of frontier capitalism in the Old West.
While I argue that a major theme of the movie is cruelty, it can also be translated as an emphasis on uncertainty. The Coen Brothers emphasise this in one of their most pointed pieces of exposition, appearing to argue that the key to western life is not underscoring its cruelties, but accepting and mastering its uncertainties. In The Gal Who Got Rattled, Billy Knapp comments to Alice that uncertainty is the only true compass that is worth living by in the cruelties of the Old West:
“Uncertainty – that is appropriate for matters of this world…I believe certainty regarding that which we can see and touch, it is seldom justified, if ever. Down the ages from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones, wanting their comfort.”
Buster Scruggs’ portrayal of the wild, indeterminate nature of life in the Old West underscores Knapp’s argument by subverting more rosy portrayals of this history. In doing so, it plays up the complete lack of certainties that the Old West had to offer, while delivering a lot of laughs and rich, compelling characters. There is a constant underscoring of the sheer precariousness of life on the frontier, that, at any given moment, you could be fatally bitten by a cobra, tomahawked by a Native American, or shot in the back by a stalking cowboy after your gold nuggets. The cruelty of Buster Scruggs is what makes it so thoroughly entertaining, and at the same time, a cautious tale on romanticising the Old West and our tendency to attach overtly generous ideas to the past.