"Death is the most central and troubling fact of modern existence."
— Robert Jay Lifton, psychologist and writer
What do you associate with western movies? Fights between good guys and bad guys? Between right and wrong? Between people wanting to maintain the status quo and others seeking change? Those are indeed common themes, but perhaps the most common is the choice between life and death.
Welcome to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a creative, confounding, bold, and adventuresome film set in the post-Civil War West. Written and directed by the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, it's an anthology consisting of six short stories. Each in its own way deals with mortality.
During the Middle Ages, monks were encouraged to keep a human skull in their rooms to remind them of death. Think of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as the contemporary equivalent of a skull, a poignant message about mortality for your psyche and your soul.
As a sign of the importance of this film among the 18 movies they have already released, the Coen Brothers admit to spending 25 years on the project. During that time, they spent hours watching old Western movies — with the familiar scene of two shooters facing each other in the middle of the town square. Or a crowded bar where a deadly fight could break out at any moment. Or a circle of wagons on the open prairie preparing for an Indian attack.
"Death is the one thing you don’t have to do. It will be done for you."
— Abraham Kaplan, American philosopher
In the opening story of this snappy anthology, we meet Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a dapper vagabond in a spiffy white outfit and an expensive guitar strapped across his shoulder. As he rides his faithful horse Dan across desert wasteland, his songs echo to the surrounding mountains. Like the singing cowboys of yesteryear's movies — Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and others — singing seems to be good medicine for those well acquainted with death, destruction, and grief. With his fancy talk and trigger finger quickness, Buster makes his mark in a saloon, seeming to be in control of his fate. But he is not prepared for an encounter with a tricky young gunslinger.
"There's nothing makes us feel so much alive is to see others
die. That's the sensation of life — the sense that we remain."
— Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady
The cowboy (James Franco) in "Near Algodones" tries to rob a bank, but the teller (Stephen Root), donning armor made out of pots and pans, chases him into the prairie and manages to knock him out. The cowboy awakes with a noose around his neck. His hanging is interrupted this time by an Comache attack, but before long he's arrested again with a wrestler. A crowd gathers to watch them die. You'll recognize the sensation if you've ever found yourself slowing down to see what's happened during a crash on the highway.
"Neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye."
— La Rochefoucald, French philosopher
"Meal Ticket" provides a show of another kind. An impresario (Liam Neeson) travels from one town to another, where he turns his wagon into a stage, and presents a theatrical recitation by Harrison (Harry Melling), who has no arms or legs. His repertoire ranges from the Cain and Abel story in the Bible to Shakespeare to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The two rarely speak, and when the impresario notices that a chicken that pecks answers to math problems will earn him as much money with less trouble, we can guess what is going to happen. Throughout, Harrison eyes his keeper with a combination of suspicion and pleading, not unlike how many of us approach death.
"There is only one 'liberty' — to come to terms with death, after which everything is possible."
— Albert Camus, French writer
In "All Gold Canyon," an old prospector (Tom Waits) discovers some gold specks in a mountain stream. He then proceeds to dig holes throughout the surrounding valley, flushing out soil samples to see where a large concentration indicates the presence of a gold vein; he nicknames what he's looking for "Mr. Pocket." But when he finds it and begins collecting large nuggets, he is shot by a young man who has been following him. The prospector has done all the work. He's bothered no one. Is death his just reward? This is a common question asked in the face of death.
"To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die."
— Thomas Campbell, Scottish poet
In "The Gal Who Got Rattled," Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and her brother are traveling to Oregon with a wagon train. When he dies of tuberculosis, one of the wagon masters, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) takes an interest in her, eventually suggesting that all her financial problems will be solved if she marries him. This solution appeals to Alice too. Then one morning, she wanders away from the others, and the other wagon master, Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) goes to find her. They are attacked by Indians, and Alice has to make the choice between life and death.
"Humankind is frightened by the mere word 'death' and nowhere
more so than in America."
— J. B Priestley, English playright
The final story, "The Mortal Remains," largely takes place inside a stagecoach. An Englishman (Jonjo O'Neill) and an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson) are bounty hunters who are transporting a corpse to Fort Morgan. The Lady (Tyne Daly), a devout Christian, is going to meet her husband, from whom she has been separated for three years. She clashes with both the Trapper (Chelcie Ross), whose bragging about his affair with an Indian woman offends her sense of propriety, and the Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), who questions her declaration that there are two kinds of people in the world, the upright and the sinning. At one point, the Irishman sings a folk song to calm the group. But it's clear that what has upset the lot of them is the presence of death — and not only in the corpse on the roof.
Death is a trickster, says The Ballad of Buster Scubbs. You can't control it; you can't predict it; you can't justify it. What you can do is face it and live with it, and this film gives you plenty of opportunities to do just that.