Death and ‘Buster Scruggs’
The Coens' Deliver a Meditation
Above all else, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a meditation on death, which means it is also a mediation on life because you can’t have one without the other—and as the trailer for the new live-action adaptation of The Lion King (something I am entirely against, by the way) reminds us, courtesy of Elton John, it is simply part of the “Circle of Life.”
Now, no one likes to talk about death and that’s understandable. Death is scary. Death is the great unknown. It is “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns.” And yet, it should not be truly feared. “For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / must give us pause.”
Yes, I like Billy Shakespeare, but I also agree with what he is saying there: we fear death because we don’t know what is on the other side of it. Some of us have faith, but even faith does not give us knowledge—rather it gives us hope; hope that in death there is something beyond life.
Nonetheless, I am getting philosophical now…
The Coen Brothers new movie is currently streaming on Netflix and comprised of six shorts. As stated above, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is about death, and how we fill the moments between our births and our deaths. For as much as it is about death, it is also about life.
I am reminded of the scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when Kirk is told, “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal life.”
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is presented as a collection of short stories about life on the American frontier. It is plain to see why the Coens chose the frontier for this story. The Western, which is the most popular genre in Hollywood from the early 20th Century until the 1960s, and since then, the Western has almost petered out. We rarely see a true Western, though when we do see one, there is often a note made of it (Silverado, Unforgiven, 3:10 to Yuma, and the Coens own True Grit to name a few). However, there is another, bigger, more important reason the Coens chose the frontier to present their mediation on death.
The Old West still looms large in the psyche of America. Check the sales of the recently released video game, Red Dead Redemption 2, if you have any doubt. The Old West still retains a place of mythic status in the history of America. There were clear-cut heroes and villains (though the best Westerns might find success in the grey area in between), and there are lessons to be learned in their stories, morals to be illustrated, parables to be shown, and all of those lessons, morals and parables will still hold true to modern life today.
No wonder the Coen Brothers chose an enduring format to tell their stories, to bring us face-to-face with death (grim as it sometimes is, and sometimes especially grim in Buster Scruggs), and to force us to face our own mortality. Not only is the Western enduring, but because it is so enduring (because it is such a trusted setting), there is a comfort to be found in that format. There is a comfort to be found in the beautiful and scenic vistas the Coens present to us—a beauty that was largely missing from The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino’s foray into the Old West. (He used Super 70mm to make his movie, and although the opening credits are truly gorgeous, we are stuck in either a stagecoach or a general store for most of the movie; it feels like the use of such a grand scale of film stock had gone wasted.)
In the first of the Coens’ stories, the titular The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we meet a lone rider of a cowboy reminiscent of the kind our parents (and maybe even grandparents) looked forward to seeing on the TV and in the movies on a regular basis. This is Buster Scruggs, a cowboy replete with an all-white outfit, a guitar, and a soothing voice—he is reminiscent of Roy Rogers, but there is one thing that makes him decidedly different: he is deadly accurate with a gun.
Though Buster Scruggs rides with an affable attitude, a gentle smile, and a soothing singing voice, he also rides with death at his side. And he brings death with him where ever he goes, assuredly and decidedly.
Buster Scruggs invites himself to sit on a poker game in this movie, and is told if he wants to play, he has to play the hand of the man who just quit—two pair aces and 8’s. For those who do not know, this is the infamous “Dead Man’s Hand,” the hand “Wild Bill” Hickcock was dealt before he was shot and killed.
The ending of this tale is easy to guess. It is an ending we have seen countless times before, and upon first viewing of this movie, it really makes you scratch your head—it really makes you wonder what the Coens are here for this time.
The second tale, Near Algodones, introduces us to an unnamed cowboy who simply wants to rob a bank, and a bank manager with an ingenious defense. This story is short and quick, and if you haven’t seen the trailer for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I highly suggest you skip it because the trailer ruins one of the movie’s best moments.
Death shows itself again here, and when we see it this time, it leaves us slightly unsettled. The bank robber, criminal though he was, was not cruel. He was perhaps a bit dimwitted, but did he deserve his fate? The lesson here is that death comes for us all, deserving or not…No one can escape death.
The third and fourth stories, Meal Ticket and All Gold Canyon, act as opposite sides of the same coin. Both tell their stories through a series of repeated action, a technique which gets us inside the heads of the main characters—gives us a peek into their psyches, their wants, their needs, their desires, their wishes, and their dreams.
Of all the stories in this movie, Meal Ticket is decidedly the darkest, the grimmest, and the bleakest. If you watch all six of these stories in one sitting (which I actually do not recommend, for it feels as though they are best seen in pairs), this is the one after which you will need a break, the need to stretch your legs, and the need to do something life affirming.
There is shot towards the end that holds on the face of The Impressario as he grapples with a decision of life and death—not just his own either, but the fate of another as well. When he makes it, you understand his decision, but that doesn’t make it any nicer and doesn’t make it any more pretty. You can’t help but feel a bit unclean as this episode ends, a bit unwashed, and a bit dirty. Also, you can’t help but wonder what you might have done in the same situation.
This is one of those stories that haunts you because it stays with you, and it stays with you because it blurs the lines of right and wrong…Of life and death.
All Gold Canyon might be the simplest of all the stories, the story of a gold prospector who does not give up hunting for gold, but that does not make it any less of an impactful story. Instead of the dark, cold locales of Meal Ticket, this one treats us to mountains, forest, rivers, lush green fields, and clear blue skies. Yet, death still finds its way in.
There is a long moment of watching blood spread across a shirt after a man is shot in the back as the shooter rolls his cigarette, and takes his time to make sure his prey is dead. This is a moment of great suspense—a moment in which you find yourself leaning forward, waiting for something to happen, waiting for something more, and hoping this is not the final beat of the story.
I would not dream of spoiling it.
The fifth story, The Gal Who Got Rattled, is by far the longest and most complete of the episodes. By that, I mean it doesn’t feel truncated, and it doesn’t feel like just a moment in a person’s life in the Old West. It has a definite beginning, middle, and end. And like All Gold Canyon, this one is also set in the prairies and the mountains of the Midwest.
Like All Gold Canyon, this one is inspired by a short story. All Gold Canyon is inspired by a Jack London story, and this one is inspired by a story by Stewart Edward White.
As said, the setting for this story is a wagon train heading West. The main characters are titular gal, named named Alice Longabough, and the wagon train heads, Mr. Arthur and Billy Knapp. As all the other stories are much shorter, you wait for this one to settle in, to get the point, and to be done, but that is the beauty of this story (and the beauty of this movie entirely). It is not in a hurry—it is not in a rush. It wants to tell us a story, to let us get to know these people, and to give us a few moments of what it might have been like to be on a wagon train.
As a “romance” develops between two of the characters on the wagon train (though there is assuredly an attraction, it cannot be accurately called a romance—more honestly an “agreement”), we hope that this story will end soon; it will end with these two characters having a chance at happiness.
Yet, that is not how death works. Death is not mean or malicious. Death doesn’t take sides, or doesn’t act out of hostility. Death is impartial, and although we feel bad when death comes, it is only because we have developed an attachment to those whom death has taken.
In a sense, you can almost see death as a Thanos-type character, though death is not insane. Death does not want to wipe out half of everyone to save everyone else. Death simply wants to take the people whose time has come. Only those people, and no one else.
When death does show its face in this story, it’s a tragic surprise, but at the same time we can’t say we didn’t see it coming.
We just hoped death wouldn’t.
All the stories open with an illustration of a key moment in the narrative, and then we are treated to a few lines of prose from the stories, as if they are actual shorts in a collection. Yet, in the case of All Gold Canyon and The Gal Who Got Rattled that is the literal truth. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning the final line of the story from The Gal Who Got Rattled, which is truly worth reading, and there is a reason the Coens linger on it. They want us to read the words, “And Mr. Arthur had no idea what he would say to Billy Knapp.”
The final story, Mortal Remains, acts more as a Coda to all we’ve seen before than a story unto itself. It trades the mountains and the prairies for the interior of a stagecoach, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.
Death is never very far away in this story—it literally hangs over all the characters throughout the entirety of what’s going on. If you can take a guess at the literal meaning of the words “mortal remains,” you will figure it out.
When the characters finally reach their destination, a hotel where they will all stay for the night, they disembark the stagecoach and go inside, while the mortal remains are left to be attended do. As the stagecoach drives out of sight, one character lingers and takes a last look before shutting the door. There is something in his eyes (a thought, a sparkle), and it seems to suggest that although there is no escaping death, there isn’t a cause to worry about it. Death will come to us all, and what matters is what we do in between.
…Or as Gandalf said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
With The Ballad of Buster Sruggs, the Coens, for whom death is never far away in their stories (think of those who die in The Big Lebowski, True Grit, and others), they don’t want us to be afraid of it and they don’t want us to fear it.
In their eyes (it seems) they want to reassure us that death is not so much a reality as it is an eventuality.
It will happen to us all, and how we deal with it is up to us. Although, I will remind you just as Kirk did that how we deal with death is just as important as how we deal with life.