We all know we are going to die. Kinda. We think so, anyway. After all, other people sometimes do.
Billed as a Western, the Coen brothers’ Netflix-distributed Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a collection of six short stories about death on the frontier. The classical form of the Western portrays communities, through leaders, establishing a livable order out of lawlessness. This work is not a Western. But a viewer expecting one might judge it to be either a revisionist or an anti-Western Western.
Armond White at the National Review calls it “an Anti-Thanksgiving movie that makes one ashamed of America’s heritage.” What the National Review reviles, the New Yorker celebrates: Richard Brody is glad that it shows “the relentless cruelty, wanton violence, deadly recklessness, and cavalier abuses of unchecked power that prevailed in the thinly and casually governed Wild West.”
Someone seeing the world through culture-war-colored glasses will miss the unpolitical theme of the film—death—and will also miss its political upshot: the importance of poems, speeches, songs, and stories in helping us to approach mortality better, and to approach immortality, too, by extending the meaning of our lives beyond our lives. It is a thoughtful, funny, and exquisitely crafted film.
Know Thyself, Mortal
Not only an anthology of “tales of the American Frontier,” the film is about how stories orient us as we try to make sense of life as a frontier that is bordered by death, that “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” Our ignorance about what death is—and about its how and when, for us personally—means that stories help us as we each inch toward our end. That seems the Coens’ underlying point.
The first vignette portrays the singing cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson). Scruggs, as quick tongued as he is gunned, mixes a dim view of human nature with a chipper attitude even as this story blends Bugs Bunny-cartoonishness with Quentin Tarentino-style brutality. Such a prolific and dexterous dealer of death should be prepared for his own. Yet when he meets his successor, Scruggs is shocked. The winged soul of the “San Saba Song-Bird” floats away crooning about a heaven where “men ain’t low down and poker’s played fair.”
In the second story, “Near Algodones,” a bank robber (James Franco) avoids being hanged for something he did, only to be falsely accused of something he didn’t. On the scaffolding, he turns to the noosed man sobbing at his side: “First time?” Having been at the end of his rope before, the robber is conscious of his mortality, unlike the self-ignorant Scruggs. Life might take absurd and unpredictable turns, but we shouldn’t be surprised by our fate. Besides, life has its beauties. The bank robber departs receiving a final grace, a smile from a pretty girl, before he drops.
With “Meal Ticket” the Coens deliver their darkest and richest tale. Armless and legless, the orator Professor Harrison (Harry Melling)—his stage name is “The Wingless Thrush”—is kept by an impresario (Liam Neeson), who carts Harrison from town to town collecting coins as the Wingless Thrush recites the classics: Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” Cain and Abel from Genesis, Shakespeare’s Sonnets 29 and 30, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and speeches from The Tempest and The Merchant of Venice.
We get such long segments of these works that they must be significant. Harrison reminds his audience that they, too, will melt “into air, into thin air” (The Tempest), while the other Shakespeare excerpts suggest that love, friendship, and mercy grant us some transcendence of life’s ordeals.
“Ozymandias” is recited in its entirety:
I met a traveller in an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Like Buster Scruggs, Shelley’s mighty king knows not his mortality, making ironic and eerie the king’s command to despair of our grand plans. The poem brutally reminds us that political orders, like all things human, pass. Is Lincoln’s address wrong, then, to inspire hope for a just communal order, or foolish only to hope that it “shall not perish from the earth”?
The legless and armless Harrison, who speaks only other people’s words, seems like the missing trunk of Shelley’s statue, the living remnant of the works of long-dead artists. But to live, art requires audiences, and when the art dies, the artist dies again. Thus, when Harrison’s audiences and earnings dwindle, the impresario throws him, like a stone, in a river, replacing the professor/artist with an entertaining curiosity, a counting chicken with “no formal education.” The impresario reveals his Hobbesian heartlessness. Aware of his mortality, he calculates his survival at minimal cost to himself.
Refusing to be his brother’s keeper (Cain and Abel) and uninspired by the possibilities of love, friendship, and mercy (Shakespeare) or a just communal order (Lincoln), the impresario seems exclusively moved by the despair of “Ozymandias.” The story shows the result for communal life. We are left without hope if we drown the classics and replace the singing bird in our soul with a counting one.
“How High Can a Bird Count, Anyway?”
The marvelous fourth vignette, “All Gold Canyon,” improves a Jack London story in which a prospector discovers an Edenic canyon and labors to find a pocket of gold on a hill. Having dug a grave-deep hole, the prospector finally unearths his fortune when a gunman shoots him in the back. The prospector gets the better of the gunman and departs the valley with his treasure. For the socialist and naturalist London, nature is animated by “the spirit of the peace of the living,” whereas the greedy prospector unsubtly brings “devastation.” Joining a Hobbesian view of our fellow man to a Lockean view of nature, London has the gunman trying to do to the prospector merely what the prospector does to the earth.
The Coens change this 1905 story simply yet drastically by adding a segment. Their prospector, who is played by Tom Waits, constantly talks and sings to himself. As he is about to steal the eggs from an owl’s nest, he locks eyes with the beautiful bird. He returns the eggs: “Well, maybe just one. How high can a bird count, anyway?” Though he, like the impresario of “Meal Ticket,” is after money, he also shows a certain humanity. It is the gunman who (like the impresario) would carelessly end life, wanting reward from the work of another. The Coens’ musical prospector protects the world that sustains life and his dreams of wealth.
The penultimate story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” portrays Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) as she travels west in a wagon train. When her brother, a failed businessman full of quick certainties and false hopes, dies of cholera, Alice accepts a proposal of marriage from Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). Definitely improvements on the protagonists who came before, Alice and Billy are not motivated by power, mere survival, or money. They share a gentle Christian faith, a sense of justice, and a desire to settle into a farming life, hoping for a meaningful old age with the comfort of family. They share also the conviction that nothing in this life merits certainty. As Billy puts it, echoing “Ozymandias,” “Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones, wanting their comfort.”
Politicians are mocked in this story by the yappy dog “President Pierce,” who has nothing to say yet won’t shut up. The dog’s namesake, the union’s 14th chief executive, is remembered mainly for being ineffectual in a time of need. The story underlines the tragedy that most politics is, despite the rare Lincoln, full of meaningless noise.
Alice, lacking her own certainties, too easily follows others’ leads, precipitating the incongruously ghastly ending of this longest and warmest of the movie’s vignettes. For mortals to live well, they have to try not to be easily rattled—which is to say, they need some hopeful resolve. While Shelley’s “Ozymandias” despairingly reminds us that all things human pass, Alice’s mistake is despairing too quickly of this life—which foils the story’s promise of a meaningful communal existence. We must navigate between easy conviction and no conviction—between false hope and despair.
The final and funniest piece, “The Mortal Remains,” recalls the Emily Dickinson poem in which death picks her up in a carriage: “Because I could not stop for death / He kindly stopped for me; / The carriage held but just ourselves / And immortality.” In the Coens’ story, three people—a trapper, a lady, and a gambler (Chelcie Ross, Tyne Daly, and Saul Rubinek)—are traveling in a carriage with two “harvesters of souls” to Fort Morgan (as in “morgue”). The two ungrim reapers (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson) sing us more songs and comment on stories. “People can’t get enough of them, like children,” says O’Neill. “Because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose, and we all love hearing about ourselves, so long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.”
When an argument breaks out, the philosophical Coens begin to show us their cards. For the trapper, communication is impossible and words meaningless, while the lady too facilely believes she knows others’ hearts. For the trapper human beings are all alike (“People are like ferrets—or maybe a beaver”) while the lady of quick conviction says they come in two easily identifiable types: “upright and sinning.”
The Coens seem to maintain the gambler’s attitude toward life and death, certainty and uncertainty, hope and despair: Friendship is real and communication genuine, even if we never completely know each other. Because people are all different, “We must each play our own hand.”
This hearkens back to Buster Scruggs, who picked up another man’s cards to play poker. Seeing aces and eights, “the dead man’s hand” of classic Westerns, he refused to play, but the other men tried to insist. “Can’t no one compel a man to engage in recreation,” he retorts. While engaging us in entertainment, the Coens as artists have used stories and songs and speeches and poems to compel us to remember that death is in everyone’s cards.
But on that note, what do the Coens leave us of hope? Their film’s conspicuous use of birds and songs recalls another poem of Dickinson’s, a counterpoint to “Ozymandias”:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm. . . .
The characters throughout The Ballad sing us a variety of songs—sad, gruesome, funny, loving. The film encourages us to keep singing, to despair not, but its many demoralizing deaths seem (in Dickinson’s words) a “storm that could abash the little bird” of hope.
The Coens emphasize the random and senseless, the absurd and tragic, and the individuality of each life and death. They gesture at but leave us wanting the types of stories that inspire people, and a people, to extend the meaning of their lives beyond their lives. Without such stories, we become like birds who can calculate but never sing. While this film isn’t a Western, it points to our need for them.
For, whether death be a passage or a stoppage, it is not death itself that is meaningful. Rather, mortality, the horizon we cannot see beyond, creates the frontier on which we act, and the frontier isn’t closed. Perhaps that’s the qualified hope to be squeezed from this brilliant, brutal film.