The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a western anthology written, directed, and produced by the Coen brothers. When you hear Coen Brothers, you know you’re in for a wild ride. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs lives up to the legend of these brothers, as it tells the tale of six short stories that appear to have no rhyme or reason. I liked some of the stories, some were just too pointless and crazy for me.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” – Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), is a cheerful singing cowboy who arrives at an isolated cantina full of outlaws where he exchanges insults with another patron before effortlessly shooting everyone as they reach for their guns. This first story is as bizarre as they come. The series of events will have you laughing and may leave you somewhat confused, however, I like this title the best.
“Near Algodones” – A young cowboy (James Franco) robs an isolated bank on the prairie. As he is fleeing, the jabbering bank teller (Stephen Root) shoots at him, forcing him to take cover behind a well. He returns fire, but the teller charges at him while wearing a washboard and several pots and pans as armor, which deflect all the cowboy’s bullets as the teller repeatedly cackles “Pan shot!” The teller knocks the cowboy out with his rifle butt, and when the cowboy regains consciousness, he is sitting upon his horse under a tree with his hands tied and a noose around his neck. This story is particularly confusing, as it ends badly after a series of simultaneous events that will surely have you scratching your head.
“Meal Ticket” – An aging impresario (Liam Neeson) and his artist Harrison (Harry Melling), a young man with no arms or legs, travel from town to town in a wagon that converts into a small stage where Harrison theatrically recites classics such as Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”; the biblical story of Cain and Abel; works by Shakespeare, in particular Sonnet 29; and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The impresario collects money from the audience at the end of each performance, with profits dwindling as they visit increasingly remote mountain towns with smaller and more indifferent audiences. This story is one of the most bazaar to me, as I have no suggestion for the moral of the story nor do I understand the point. This doesn’t mean someone else cannot figure it out or enjoy it, it just means I didn’t care for Meal Ticket.
“All Gold Canyon” – A grizzled prospector (Tom Waits) arrives in a pristine mountain valley and decides to dig for gold in a grassy meadow beside a river. Over the course of several days, he pans through shovelfuls of dirt to count the gold specks, and then begins digging a deeper hole once he has identified their likely source. After his first night camping at the site, he spots a great horned owl tending its treetop nest at the edge of the valley. When he climbs up and reaches the nest, the mother owl’s watchful gaze from a nearby tree causes him to replace three of the four eggs he has taken for his meal. On his third day, he digs out gold nuggets of increasing size before finally reaching “Mr. Pocket”, a large gold vein running through the quartz he has uncovered. This story was quite entertaining with a moral I think everyone could understand.
“The Gal Who Got Rattled” – Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and her older brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays), an inept businessman, are journeying in a wagon train across the prairie towards Oregon, where Gilbert claims a new business partner will marry his sister. Gilbert dies of cholera shortly after they embark, and the wagon train’s leaders, Mr. Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) and Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines), help Alice bury her brother. Though she has no definite prospects in Oregon, Alice decides to continue the trip rather than return east. This story was sad, bizarre and while it has a point, I’m not sure the message served a purpose.
“The Mortal Remains” – At sunset, five people, an Englishman (Thigpen – Jonjo O’Neill), an Irishman (Clarence – Brendan Gleeson), a Frenchman (René – Saul Rubinek), a lady (Mrs. Betjeman – Tyne Daly), and a fur trapper (Chelcie Ross) ride to Fort Morgan, Colorado in a stagecoach. Thigpen says that he and Clarence often travel this route “ferrying cargo”, alluding to a corpse on the roof, but he does not specify the nature of their business. The Trapper rambles about his past relationship with a Native woman in which neither knew the other’s language, but communicating through understanding each other’s emotions led him to conclude that people are all alike in their basic needs, just like the animals he traps. This story had the most bizarre ending of all despite much valuable information being exchanged. Maybe that’s all we were suppose to get out of The Mortal Remains since I don’t think the final scenes attributed anything more to the story. It definitely left you wanting more.
Overall, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may have been the most bizarre of all the Coen Brothers movies I’ve seen. I’m not sure why the title is Buster Scruggs when only one story included that character but I’m sure someone can explain it. I tried to find good in all the stories. Some are funny, most are bizarre and some delivered a strong message. I enjoyed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs anyway, which can be seen on Netflix. Check It Out!
[The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is Oscar nominated for Best: Adapted Screenplay, Original Song and Costume Design]