To say the Western is a dying genre would be wrong but it’s nowhere near as healthy as it once was. Still, as long as the Coen Brothers are making movies it will never really die. Out this day last year, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs set their reputation as Western auteurs in stone. They’d already cut their teeth with the western-adjacent Miller’s Crossing and then sharpened them on the neo-western No Country for Old Men and their True Grit remake. It goes without saying then that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is Joel and Ethan Coen working at the peak of their powers.
It’s hard to fault the first entry for sheer entertainment value as we follow the adventures of the San Saba Songbird (or the West Texas Twit) Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson). But the number of characters to care about in that story – the titular ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ – is quite low compared to other entries like ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ or ‘All Gold Canyon’. Likewise the stark, terrible beauty of ‘Meal Ticket’ next to the eerie other-worldliness of ‘The Mortal Remains’ easily beat out ‘Near Algodones’ in terms of depth. So, from best to least here’s a detailed breakdown and ranking of each segment in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
1. ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’
Originality in the Western genre may as well be gold. Retelling the same old myths and legends gets old quickly. Change is necessary and good as the likes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Blazin’ Saddles and Bone Tomahawk have shown. Romance in a genre better known for dust, blood and savagery is a welcome relief. After Alice Longabaugh’s (Zoe Kazan) inept brother dies of cholera on the wagon train to Oregon she finds herself smitten with rugged wagon hand Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) and he with her.
Most of ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ is an awkward romcom between two people as confounded by their attraction as they are by the disinterest everyone around them has in their romance. Mr Arthur’s (Grainger Hines) Spartan acknowledgement of long-time trail buddy Billy Knapp’s engagement is perhaps the funniest joke in the whole episode. Of course, the segment ends in blood, dust and savagery but for a while it’s a joy to bask in the warm loving glow that’s rarely found in the Western genre.
2. ‘The Mortal Remains’
When it comes to storytelling there are few better than the Coen Brothers. So, it checks out that they would eventually make a story about storytelling. And that’s what ‘The Mortal Remains’ is. It’s about five strangers telling stories to each other while embarking on a long spooky coach ride. The movement from meandering tales to macabre unreality is almost imperceptible but once you realise where the story, led by Edgar Allen Poe lookalike Thigpen (Jonjo O’Neill) and Irish ‘Thumper’ Clarence (Brendan Gleeson), is going it’s too late to turn back.
The knocking of a steel-tipped cane on wood silences the coach and Thigpen begins his tale. A story that seems drawn directly from Poe’s oeuvre morphs into a none-too subtle hint at what’s really happening. When the coach stops and Thigpen and Clarence resume their two-man comedy act the other passengers are understandably nervous. Have they reached heaven, hell or just a hotel? Perhaps they are somewhere between all three? Either way, their story is finished.
3. ‘All Gold Canyon’
There’s a good argument to say that the Coens hate their characters. I don’t think that’s true, they’re more like capricious gods that give as much as they take. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a big briefcase full of cash but he also gets shot for his trouble in No Country for Old Men. Likewise, the Prospector (Tom Waits) in ‘All Gold Canyon’ finds a big vein of gold – heretofore known as Mr Pocket – but he also gets shot for his trouble. The Coens giveth and the Coens taketh away.
But ‘All Gold Canyon’ isn’t really about treasure hunting or the creaky old Prospector’s trials and tribulations. It’s about the environment and man’s relationship with it as well as his effect on it. Nature, like the Brothers, can be capricious and cruel but it can also be glorious and bountiful. The Prospector is as careful as he can be with the landscape and its inhabitants. Yes, he destroys a portion of the verdant hillside in his mining efforts. But these efforts are calculated, just like his egg-stealing.
Just as calculated is the Prospector’s attacker’s plot but thanks to happenstance and coincidence, a favourite tool of Ethan and Joel, it doesn’t work out. In the end though it hardly matters whether our beloved Prospector or pock-marked bandit wins because in a short while the hooting owl, babbling brook and uncanny CGI deer that live in that lush paradise will all be gone, paved over by the gold mining industry. At the end even poor old Mr Pocket will be no more.
4. ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’
Surly Joe (Clancy Brown) getting shot in the face was probably the best death scene of 2018. That one’s easy but what’s harder is picking a better song from ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’. Is it the echoing ‘Cool Water’? The rousing, pun-riddled ‘Little Joe the Wrangler’? Perhaps it’s the Oscar-nominated tragi-comic ballad ‘When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings’? Whichever one it is the first segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t lack for entertainment. From its bloody violence, amoral tone and cutting humour this segment is the Coens firing on all stylistic cylinders.
The setting in which we find our anti-hero looks extremely artificial. Every part of it screams studio ranch. This isn’t a criticism as it fits the heightened world Scruggs travails. The town of Frenchman’s Gulch looks like it was filmed on a Wild West stunt show set. Even the gore has a falsified look to it – as if Tom Savini’s fake blood order got mixed up with the Coens’. But this all creates the perfect imagery for the gunslinger myth. It’s just a shame that, like all myths that we’ve heard before, it’s hard to care about its heroes or villains no matter how good at singing they are.
5. ‘Meal Ticket’
Darkness pervades the work of the Coen Brothers. All you need to do is watch No Country for Old Men or Barton Fink and you’ll see how easily pessimism looms over certain corners of their filmography. So it fits that at least one episode in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs would be as black-humoured as a bandito with a bad tooth. Still the Coens along with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and their consistent composer Carter Burwell find perhaps a little too much delight in the stark misery of their setting and story.
‘Meal Ticket’ doesn’t lack the depth of character that ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ or ‘Near Algodones’ does as it communicates by showing not telling. The relationship between the nameless Impresario (Liam Neeson) and his charge, the orator and quadruple amputee Harrison (Harry Melling), is workmanlike. Harrison literally sings for his supper hence the cruel stage name The Wingless Thrush. As good as Melling is at showcasing constant despair through a blank, innocent face it’s Neeson that steals the show as a man whose humanity is whittled away by bitter winds and poor ticket sales. Still the whole segment feels like the pitiless, pointless cruelty of early Von Trier rather than the fateful randomness of the Coens’ best tragedies.
6. ‘Near Algodones’
It’s all one big joke isn’t it? Try to make some easy money by robbing a bank and you get shot at by a crazy old coot wearing pans as armour. Wake up during the middle of your own trial and not only are you presumed guilty but your head’s already in the noose. Get rescued by a friendly herder and you get arrested for cattle rustling. Mount the gallows for a second time only to actually get executed. So it goes in ‘Near Algodones’.
It’s hard to take any of it seriously considering that’s all this segment is: James Franco’s nameless cowboy being put upon in all the ways the world can put upon a man. Despite the stellar character work done by Stephen Root as the incomprehensible bank teller and Ralph Ineson as a prairie judge ‘Near Algodones’ ultimately boils down to what a cruel joke the world is. It’s something the Coen Brothers have examined in longer, better projects. Instead of benefiting from its brevity the episode suffers from it. Still, with all that said the triumphant cry of “Pan shot!” has been bouncing around in my skull for the last year.