The new Coen Brothers’ film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs wasn’t just made by Netflix; it was made for Netflix. Watching it on a computer monitor just inches from your face, one can’t help but get swept away in the breathtaking beauty of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography (fittingly, it’s the first Cohen Brothers’ film to be shot digitally). Turning on the captioning allows you to fully comprehend the Coen’s antiquated dialogue and appreciate its rat-a-tat rhythms. And its common themes across an episodic structure and time-specific setting calls to mind a show like Black Mirror.
Like all of the Coen Brothers’ films, it’s also incredibly rewarding upon rewatch, another key feature of the Netflix model. There are so many things going on, we had to sit down and write out our thoughts, much like the unnamed author of the “book” that forms the basis for the film. Speaking of which….SPOILERS follow!
The movie is based on a book based on campfire stories
Watching Buster Scruggs at home, one is able to pause the movie as desired, allowing you to study its details in ways impossible at a screening. The most significant examples are the interstitials featuring The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the book. Pausing the movie after the credits, one notices the novel is dedicated to Gaylord Gilpin, whose yarns “in camp above the Roaring Fork” are the origin of these tales (his stories were so great, the book’s author literally shit themselves).
We also get a more specific timeline for the film’s events. As we see from the book’s title page, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was originally published in September of 1873 by Mike Zoss and Sons (presumably the paterfamilias of the movie’s producer, Mike Zoss). And given that the book is based on the excrement-inducing campfire stories of the aforementioned Gaylord Gilpin, we can assume that, due to the distended nature of manually transcribing a novel and putting it to press in the 19th century, the events portrayed took place, at the latest, near the end of 1860s.
The Story Behind the Stories
Another delight comes from pausing at each new chapter and parsing the narrative. “No one heard it, but the lone rider’s song carried far through crisp morning air,” reads the beginning of the movie’s titular sequence. It goes on to establish that Buster Scruggs does not kill out of meanness of heart—”No!”—but rather a natural disposition to the skills favored in his territory: “that of drawing a side-arm quickly and aiming it accurately.”
It’s unlikely that the Coen Brothers actually fashioned a complete novelization of the tales told in Buster Scruggs, but the evocative prose of these interstitials certainly makes you wish they had.
On Art and Artifice
As the most comedic portions, the first two segments in Buster Scruggs do not cry out for close analysis (this is not meant as a slight; Buster Scruggs might be the most purely funny thing the Coen Brothers have done since Oh Brother). But beginning with “Meal Ticket,” things take a turn for the (even more) dark and ambiguous. Like all the others, that segment hinges on a bitter irony, but it is also transparently an argument about Art (an armless and legless Harry Melling aka Dudley Dursley) vs. Commerce (the chicken aka the pecking Pythagorean).
In that context, we might feel a bit more sympathetic toward Liam Neesons’ Impresario, as he’s billed in the credits. Yes, Art can move people’s hearts and stir them in the depths of their souls. But it requires great effort, even embarrassment; you have to slowly feed it meals and hug it close while it takes a piss. Commerce, on the other hand, requires no such coddling, it’s low maintenance and the crowds love it. Plus, you don’t have to worry about it watching you take care of business in a brothel.
So while I did not exactly feel sympathetic to Liam Neesons when he pulled off the road to send the kid up the creek without a paddle, I can at least understand his motives: The funky chicken is going to beat Ozymandias every time.
Digging for Ideas
We could also view the subsequent segment, “All Gold Canyon,” as a comment on creative endeavors. The Coen Brothers are patient as they establish the tedious, methodical process Tom Waits’ Prospector uses to locate “Mr. Pocket.” And what happens when he finally uncovers his hidden gem? A “measly skunk” sneaks up from behind to rip him off.
Waits is perfect in the role of a kooky, grizzled loner working the fringes of the world, and he’s never better than when he cries out in anguish while treating the bulletwound; he seems injured not just on a physical but spiritual level, as if he can not believe someone would have the temerity to steal the prize he worked so hard to uncover. Of course, the poaching doesn’t work and the prospector leaves the canyon with his prize. Interlopers can shoot him in the guts, but they’re not getting “nothing important.”
Death Becomes Her
“The Gal Who Got Rattled” hammers home the overarching theme of Buster Scruggs: Life in the old west was perilous, and death could arrive anywhere (A Million Ways To Die In the West would have been an apt title had it not already been claimed). Freed from her incompetent, overbearing brother, a young woman begins to piece together her own life before she is killed as a result of a dog who already should have been put down (perhaps President Pierce is a symbol of how we must fully and completely rid ourselves of our past if we wish to escape it).
Yet in spite of Mr. Arthur’s assumption (and the title of the short), I’m not convinced that Alice Longabaugh took her own life. She’s last shown alive after the Indians’ second parry, with Mr. Arthur telling her to “hold on,” while he investigates the battlefield. We then hear a series of faint gunshots before Mr. Arthur is clubbed by the Indian hiding on horseback. Presumably, this would be the point at which Ms. Longabaugh shot herself, yet we do not hear any close gunfire, save for Mr. Arthur’s fatal shot on the Indian.
Furthermore, if Alice were to have shot herself directly in the middle of the forehead while lying flat on her back (as she was found), wouldn’t the arm that fired the fatal shot be resting across her chest, rather than at her side? There’s enough evidence to suggest that her demise was not, to quote Buster Scruggs, “in the nature of a suicide,” but the result of crossfire. And if I’m Mr. Arthur, that’s what I say to Billy Knapp.
Ostensibly, the final segment has the least to do with death, as its only corpse is hitched to the stagecoach at the outset. Yet as the story rolls on, the audience, and the carriage’s passengers, are left with a discomforting feeling. What awaits the trio of passengers inside the hotel at Fort Morgan?
As others have noted, the story could be seen as a journey into the afterlife. Thigpen, the Englishman, takes offense at the title of “Bounty Hunter,” preferring to think of himself as a “reaper” (“harvesters of souls” as his partner Clancey puts it). He also confesses to taking pleasure in “watching [his bounties] negotiate the passage” to the other side. Add in the first page of the book’s narration—upon awakening, the tedious trapper can not remember boarding the carriage or planning his trip, but is “most certainly in the right place”—as well as the white light coming down from the top of the hotel’s stairs and one gets the impression that, yep, this is the final stop.
Rather than further rehash this theory, I’d like to introduce another: The Frenchman in the stagecoach is the same man at the poker table in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Frenchman in the saloon, played by David Krumholtz, certainly bears a physical resemblance to Saul Rubinek, who is also billed in the credits as simply “Frenchman.”
Additionally, the Frenchman in “The Mortal Remains” shares an anecdote about poker with Tyne Daly’s pious preacher’s wife that sounds suspiciously like the circumstance Buster Scruggs found himself in when he sat down at the card table and was told by Curly Joe, “You seen ‘em, you play ‘em.” While the details may differ, the moral of the tale is the same: You can’t just go around playing another man’s cards.
Perhaps this is just fanfic, the result of literally reading too much into The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But by releasing the movie to Netflix, viewers can go back and discover these details at their leisure. Or if you just want to watch it once and move on, that’s fine too. As Buster himself notes, “Can’t no one compel another man to engage in recreation.”