I noticed a bunch of Tweets and Facebook posts about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in the past few days but didn’t dig into it at first.  I noticed that it was the guy from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and that people were talking about which “one” they liked the most, but that was it.  It was only on Thanksgiving morning that my friend Eva Halloween asked me if I had seen it because it was a Coen brothers thing.  Soooo we watched it after dinner.  Here are hot bullets of facts, observations and reflections!

  • It was apparently originally slated to be a series but then they smooshed it all together and made it a 2+ hour movie containing six individual stories.  They are listed below with a my description and how I rank them.  SPOILERS!!!
    • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (1) – H.I. McDonough’s (from Raising Arizona) great great grandfather is a singing outlaw who dies.
    • Near Algodones (5) – A crappy bank robber has bad luck, (PAN SHOT!) then good luck (hanging failure) then bad luck (framed for rustling) then dies.
    • Meal Ticket (6) – The economics of traveling entertainment wagons and the hard-heartedness of a haggard businessman kill a limbless actor.
    • All Gold Canyon (3) – An old prospector teaches us how prospecting works and then pretends to die, then kills someone.
    • The Gal who got Rattled (4) – A woman who has had no control over her life does what she’s told and dies.
    • The Mortal Remains (2) – Death is a duo and nobody wins at the end of everything
  • I genuinely believe that while there are very few “shared universe” things in the Coen brothers’ movies, there is one in Raising Arizona
    (Hudsucker Industries) and that Buster really is intended to be an ancestor of Hi.  Let’s listen to Buster speak.

Now let’s read some of Hi’s eloquence (Spoilers for Raising Arizona)


My dearest Edwina,

Tonight, as you and Nathan slumber, my heart is filled with anguish. I hope that you will both understand and forgive me for what I have decided I must do. By the time you read this, I will be gone.
I will never be the man that you want me to be, the husband and father that you and Nathan deserve.
Maybe it’s my upbringing. Maybe it’s just that my genes got screwed up. I don’t know. But the events of the last day have showed amply that I don’t have the strength of character to raise up a family in a manner befitting a responsible adult.
I say all this to my shame.
I will love you always, truly and deeply. But I fear that if I stay, I would only bring bad trouble on the heads of you and Nathan Jr. I feel this thunder gathering even now. If I leave, hopefully, it will leave with me.
I cannot tarry. Better I should go, send you money, and let you curse my name.
Your loving –

And don’t forget, Hi is an outlaw and as he explains to Ed:

  • Pan Shot! is ridiculous and amazing and I hope that the illustrations from the book become posters or something.  That’s the one I would buy.  Everything else about “Near Algodones” is meh.
  • I love Tom Waits and honestly his chapter was beautiful.  I have read some reviews that said it was the weakest but I will fight those people.  It’s Tom Waits ffs.  Did you know he might have been the inspiration for Heath Ledger’s Joker?  Watch!
  • “The Gal who Got Rattled” had the best acting in the movie.  And the whole thing made my heart ache.
  • Liam Neeson is a dick.  Not just for dropping the dude into the river (his named changed to Bob!) but for bringing him into the brothel room and turning him round and then back again.  Why not leave him downstairs at the bar with a straw?
  • “Mortal Remains, which seems to have had some question as to what exactly happened, was my second favorite chapter.  I think it capped off a movie about Death with a story about Death.  Death and the sad realization that there might not be a big fancy Heaven, despite what Buster thinks in chapter one.  He thinks there most be because otherwise what are all the songs about?  Well, the only song sung in he chapter is “Pills of White Mercury” which is about Death.  It’s also based on an older song, “The Unfortunate Rake” which was also the precursor to “Streets of Laredo” which is a straight up cowboy song.  At any rate, my concrete reasoning is:
    • Each character in the stage coach says what they think people are.  But to the bounty hunters, who explain that they reap souls, there are only two kinds: dead or alive.
    • When asked if that meant that they take people alive, one answers: “I didn’t say that.”
    • That same hunter explains that the coachman “never stops; it’s a company policy.”
    • The lady is in denial, which is why the Trapper and the Frenchman hesitate to open the hotel door for her.
    • The Frenchman, who demonstrated the most insight during the carriage ride, accepts his fate at the end and strolls in on his own terms.

I dug the movie a lot, but I think that might be in part because it was just so damn “Coeny”.  It was beautiful, aggressively violent, and as indifferent to our feelings as the world is.

The Old West is the easiest analogue for the parts of America’s wiring that cross over themselves and sort of short themselves out.  On one hand, it is unlimited opportunity if one is willing to face the challenges and dangers and accept the inherent, original sin of making one’s way in a stolen land.

On the other, it is a graphic depiction of the dangers of those choices.  Quick, senseless, violent death.  A life of toil tinged with greed, and the realization that no matter how much one feels they control, they don’t control anything.

Oh, and in one last little splash of cheeriness, everyone in each chapter is alone, and as soon as they seem like they aren’t, Death reminds them.  So tell your friends to watch the movie and remember that the Coen brothers are the one of the best things our culture has produced in our lifetimes.