The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of “the book” from which the Coen brothers’ latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren’t really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
“You seen ’em, you play ’em.”
In the opening and closing chapters, the tales explicitly draw attention to the weights and measures and overriding system in which mere mortals operate, although tonally, they’re not remotely bedfellows. Ballad is gleefully flippant and irreverent, even to the point of its protagonist’s death, at which point Buster sprouts wings and a harp – in spite of being a mass killer – and ascends to the heavens, singing away just as before (perhaps he’s granted admittance through the pearly gates because he has a good voice?)
As the introductory tale, Ballad might be considered to wrong-foot the audience, so frivolous and playful is it, accompanying singing cowboy Scruggs, who talks to the camera à la another famous Coens cowboy (Sam Elliott in The Big Lewbowski), complete with same kind of delicious verbiage (“Known to some as the San Saba Songbird, I got other handles, nicknames, appellations and cognomens” – he objects to the label misanthrope). Tim Blake Nelson, previously of O Brother, Where Art Thou? makes for delightful casting as the unlikely crack shot gunslinger (I could see Bruce Willis pulling this part off with aplomb, back in his Moonlighting and Bruno days – equally, there’s more than a hint of a Three Amigos-era Martin Short).
Buster’s a parody of the fastest draw in the West, maintaining the same cheerful disposition even when weaponless and in a saloon faced by an armed Clancy Brown (the solution is a hilariously bloody visual gag x3), or called to a duel with Brown’s brother (Jefferson Mays), during which he shoots off his fingers before using a mirror for a final deadly trick shot. When Buster’s subsequently bested in a duel, he’s philosophical (“Can’t be top dog forever“), and he and the victor engaging in a duet as he flies off; the implication is that, while the rules of the West are readily acknowledged, they’re also superficial and equivocal, such that, once in the hereafter “we can shake our heads over all the meanness in the used to be“.
In Ballad at least, then, death is treated as irreverently as its central character; it’s almost the classic reductive Coens pose, in fact, where by drawing attention to their “theme” in the text, they eliminate any further discussion of the same. It’s only as elastic as the story itself. And in this case, the story’s a hoot.
“Pan-shot!” cried the old man.
There’s further flippancy in the James Franco-starring second instalment, albeit it’s of a less overtly glib nature. This and the subsequent tale are the most to-the-point in the telling, taking the form of a narrative setup and subsequent punchline, with little room for anything else. Franco’s Cowboy robs a bank, only to be met by a surprisingly robust response from Stephen Root’s Teller, suited up with a series of protective pots and pans: “That pan-covered son of a bitch back at the bank don’t hardly fight fair in my opinion“.
The joke here is that, having been granted a miraculous escape from the hangman’s noose when a Native American war party make short work of the lynch mob – they leave him hanging – he is rescued by a “drover”, arrested for rustling and returned to the gallows once more; we assume the dopey Franco must have some rare luck, like Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – “First time?” he blithely asks a fellow guilty party – but when the lever is pulled, that’s it for him. It’s an effective rug pull, in that we’re expecting something more; fate is arbitrary and inconsistent. Root’s eccentric teller is the highlight of this one, though.
“The quality of mercy…”
The bleakest of the sextet, as Liam Neeson’s impresario tours towns with a limbless performing artist (Harry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursley). Aside from his performances, which consist of recitations from the classics, The Bible and the Gettysburg Address, to varyingly sized audiences, the proceedings are near silent, so there’s mundane repetition to the (lack of) developments.
I was looking for a clue to the connection between these two characters, or how Harrison ended up in his state, but none is forthcoming; as such, I wondered at the visit to the prostitute, where she asks “He ever had any?” and Neeson replies “Once“. Did he mean he “generously” paid for him once, or is there a more sinister story behind it?
I suspect, though, it’s as simple as it appears, particularly given the title. The impresario has wearied of the burden of Harry, such that when he comes across a mathematical chicken (“The calculating capon! The pecking Pythagorean!“) wowing the crowd, the equation is simple; a human life is worth less than that of a chicken, particularly when it fails to bring the punters. So Harry is thrown from a bridge into the river below and the chicken takes his place in the back of the wagon.
It isn’t a particularly nuanced or satisfying tale, exerting the force of a blunt instrument. But it does emphasise a different tack, in terms of the morality of the yarns. Where, in the first two, outlaws could be regarded as receiving their comeuppance, here, unless there’s information withheld from us, an innocent party is coldly dispatched for pecuniary gain, and there’s no consequence for the guilty man concerned.
All Gold Canyon
And in all that mighty sweep of earth he saw no sign of man nor the handiwork of man.
Another perspective might be seen to intrude in the fourth tale, based on a Jack London story. For the most part, it plays out with the slow, sure pace of its predecessor, as the inimitable and always authentic Tom Waits – a gold prospector – sets to work in an idyllic valley (“Where are you, Mr Pocket?“) There’s every indication that the surrounding environment reluctantly endures his presence and returns to its carefree existence when he is gone.
But, being one who spends much of his time alone in the wilderness, Waits has built his own codes and superstitions, which may or may not be valid; his decision not to steal an owl’s eggs, given how it is giving him the eye (well, bar one: “How high can a bird count, anyway?“) appears to earn him a favour later, when, after being shot in the back by a “measly skunk” (Sam Dillon), the owl hoots at a crucial moment, distracting the measly skunk.
One might suggest the prospector is merely the least destructive party, then, but the justice at work here isn’t about how right or wrong the man attempting to steal from the prospector is; it’s based on how respectful of the valley the prospector is.
The Gal Who Got Rattled
“Mr Arthur had no idea what he would say to Billy Knapp.”
Like the third chapter, this tale – at forty minutes, by some distance the longest – features characters undeservingly undone by cruel twists of fate, but lands much convincingly, thanks to an engrossing plotline that shifts focus several times before its wagon train reaches its destination.
The quote under the introductory illustration for this one is also the final sentence in the story, a clue that the gal of the title (Zoe Kazan’s Alice Longabaugh) may not be making it to the end. In a sense, there is a law at work here, but it’s the one of the West, defined, as with the Neeson story, as dividing the weak from the strong; Alice has no agency of her own in a harsh climate, and with the sudden death of her brother, she is at the mercy of the kindness or cruelty of those she encounters.
It’s also the brothers’ most blackly comic tale, pulling shifts in who we think is the protagonist and who is actually in control of events. It looks as if a tentative romance between Alice and wagon train handler Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) may resolve her problems, but it’s a prospect that doesn’t please Billy’s colleague Mr Arthur (Grainger Hines), who will be left in the lurch if Billy settles in Oregon.
And then there’s her (brother’s) dog, President Pierce, taken by Billy to be put down because of his barking, with Alice’s blessing. The President manages to escape, and Alice discovers him watching prairie dogs; if not for President Pierce, Alice and Mr Arthur (who notices she’s missing and goes to find her) wouldn’t have been attacked by Comanches, and Alice wouldn’t have mistakenly thought Mr Arthur had been killed, so following his instructions to shoot herself to avoid capture (“She hadn’t oughta to have did it“).
One might read this as a crafty plot on President Pierce’s part; he and Mr Arthur return to the wagon train together, while Billy, who conspired with Alice in the hound’s destruction, is left with nothing. Is it coincidental that, after both the Coens and Wes Anderson mistreated cats in recent movies (Inside Llewyn Davis and Grand Budapest Hotel respectively), they should make ones this year in which dogs are granted a free pass? Probably. Also of incidental note, the protagonist of Suburbicon was Episcopalian, and so is Zoe Kazan here. I’m sure they just like the sound of the word.
The switch in perspective that comes in this final sequence is deftly achieved. Peripheral character Mr Arthur moves to centre stage, and his orderly approach to a deadly situation of Comanches on the warpath, juggled with the humour of them also falling down prairie dog holes, makes for a first-rate action sequence. Kazan delivers a memorable and affecting turn, although President Pierce is ultimately going to get all the sympathy votes. Because he’s a dog.
The Mortal Remains
We know him, only at the end.
As with All Gold Canyon, The Mortal Remains offers a non-human perspective on life and mortality. It’s also by far the most horror-tinged of the anthology. Not in graphic content, but thematically. Indeed, I was reminded of the framing story to Vault of Horror (1973) – SPOILERS for it in the rest of this paragraph – in which five strangers find themselves in a gentlemen’s club upon disembarking a lift; there’s no way back into the lift, so they tell each other tales while waiting for help; when the lift door finally opens, there’s a graveyard on the other side, into which they disappear as they exit (they’re damned souls required to tell the story of their evil deeds for all eternity).
The Mortal Remains isn’t quite as elaborate in purpose, but it’s essentially a similar setup, of a party conveyed to hell/the afterlife. In this case, a stagecoach consisting of Tyne Daly’s proper Christian Mrs Betjamin, Saul Rubinek’s cheeky Frenchman René, Chelchie Ross’ Trapper and Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill’s reapers (which the Trapper takes to mean bounty hunters, on account of the body on the roof).
There isn’t much more to it than that. Rubinek was magnificent in a magnificent western, of course (Unforgiven), and following her outrage at the Trapper’s assertion that “People are like ferrets“, René has mischievous fun suggesting Mrs Betjamin’s clearly demarcated account of good and evil may require further contemplation on her part, and perhaps she should consider what her husband gets up to on all those lonely business trips (“Take it easy. He’s just a Frenchman!” exclaims Gleeson when she starts hitting René). Gleeson and O’Neill make a good double act (“We’re a duo, a tandem, a team“), and there are allusions to the purposeless of the whole shebang, as with the opener (“I do like looking into their eyes as they try to make sense of it… All of it“).
It’s a neatly told tale then, and likably performed, but you could hardly argue it’s particularly original.
Has an anthology ever been made that wasn’t uneven (well, there are probably some that are outright dire, but I’ll exclude them for the sake of looking for positives)? The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is at its weakest engaging in a singular, extended sick punchline (Meal Ticket) and at its best when allowing the brothers to unleash their most unfettered comedic sensibilities (Scruggs) or giving themselves the time to let a tale breathe with additional melancholic complexion (The Gal Who Got Rattled). I doubt this will be many people’s favourite Coen Brothers movie – like the previous Hail Caesar! there’s a sense they know they’re making something that’s largely inessential, even unto themselves – but it still provides an effective primer for their range and versatility.
The tales in descending order of ranking:
The Gal Who Got Rattled
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
All Gold Canyon
The Mortal Remains