Buster Scruggs: Whistling Past the ‘Used-to-Be’

Josh Larsen

Considering all of the dying that takes place in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology Western from Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s understandable that there’s also a lot of talk about the life to come. The movie ranks among the Coen brothers’ more nihilistic efforts in that it doesn’t seem to think the sadistic gunslingers, selfish pioneers, greedy prospectors, and others populating this mythological Old West deserve to live. But what about the hereafter? Is Buster Scruggs equally pessimistic on that front?

In each segment, different characters on the American frontier find themselves on a trail toward punishment and death. (Spoilers ahead.) If notions of mercy were surprisingly prevalent in the Coens’ last film, Hail, Caesar!, they are in short supply here. More often than not, clemency is a comic red herring. In “Near Algodones,” a dim-witted bank robber (James Franco) miraculously cheats death so many times he gets cocky. Then the rug—or should I say the hangman’s platform—gets pulled out from under him. Here and throughout Buster Scruggs, grace is as arbitrary as violence, and as meaningless.

If death is a common motif, so is music. The first person we meet in the film is the title character, a singing gunslinger—the “San Saba Songbird” is one of his nicknames—played by Tim Blake Nelson. Wearing snappy white chaps and a wide smile, Buster Scruggs looks friendly enough, but within the film’s first few minutes he’s blithely killed about a dozen men (to be fair, they almost all drew first). Like Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the expressionless hit man of the Coens’ equally nihilistic No Country for Old Men, Buster takes a capricious approach to human life. Chigurh flipped a coin to decide who died and who lived; Buster swings open a saloon door and lets fate choose who looks up.

Buster treats us to three songs in his opening segment, but the most telling is his final one. Having shot up yet another saloon, Buster is called out into the street by a younger gunslinger (Willie Watson) who wants to make a name for himself. He succeeds; before Buster can hum a bar he gets a bullet in the head. After a beat or two, Buster’s ghostly form—complete with wings and a miniature harp—arises to sing a duet with his killer: “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” written by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch.

Yippee-ki-yi-ay / I’m glory bound.
No more jingle, jangle / I’ll lay my guns down.

As the two trade verses, Buster floats up to sky, the cheesy digital effects (this is the first Coen brothers movie not to be shot on film) adding to the hokum. Buster ends his song with a little speech: “There’s just gotta be a place up ahead where men ain’t low-down and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about? I’ll see y’all there, and we can sing together and shake our heads over all the meanness in the used-to-be.”

Sounds nice (there might even be some grace in it), but it’s hard to take Buster’s eschatology too seriously considering he’s part devil and part angelic rodeo clown. And indeed what follows in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, especially in song, largely refutes the silly optimism of which he sings.

Most damning is “Meal Ticket,” in which Liam Neeson plays a traveling showman and Harry Melling plays his act: an armless, legless man reciting lofty oratory to frigid frontier crowds (poetry, famous speeches, Bible passages—most notably the story of Cain and Abel). The two men are stuck in a brutal Darwinian agreement devoid of compassion; notice how Neeson’s “caretaker” shovels beans into the performer’s mouth at mealtime, not pausing to let them cool. When the scales become tipped in the showman’s favor, the Coens foreshadow the development by having him drunkenly sing two Irish traditionals around the campfire he shares with his limbless companion: “Weela Walla Wallya” and “The Sash My Father Wore.” The first is an account of a child murderer and the second is a commemorative war ballad, but the lyrics matter less than Neeson’s delivery. Wearing a ghoulish grin, the showman slurs boozily from one song into the other. The ballads become campfire ghost stories, sung about (and for) the dead.

It’s hard to take Buster’s eschatology too seriously considering he’s part devil and part angelic rodeo clown.

Things seemingly lighten up a bit with “All Gold Canyon,” in which a prospector (Tom Waits) discovers a pocket of gold. We hear the prospector before we see him, his raggedy voice invading the pristine valley with a raspy rendition of “Mother Machree.” A stag looks up from a stream in alarm and an owl bristles its feathers. Even the minnows scatter and the butterflies flitter away. (The Coens give the segment a Looney Tunes-Bambi vibe.) By the time the prospector leaves after digging up the valley, we realize his choice of song—“O God bless you and keep you Mother Machree”—is more Coen irony. The man singing a traditional ode to an aging mother has just despoiled and looted Mother Nature herself. If this valley initially represented a vision of a new heaven and a new earth—maybe even Buster’s hoped-for “place up ahead”—it’s one that has now been pockmarked by the presence of humankind. Paradise may not yet be lost, but it’s begun to slip away.

You could argue that Buster Scruggs’ last segment, “The Mortal Remains,” actually takes place in the afterlife. Five passengers ride a midnight stagecoach bound for a gloomy hotel, two of them bounty hunters who carry the corpse of their latest quarry with them. “We’re harvesters of souls,” one of the bagmen (Brendan Gleeson) says to the rattled passengers, before lending his defeatist lilt to another traditional song, identified in the credits as “The Unfortunate Lad”:

Get six pretty maidens to carry my coffin, and six pretty maidens to bear up my pall.
And give to each of them bunches of roses, that they may not smell me as they go along.

Unlike Buster’s hopeful angel, this unfortunate cowboy has no thoughts for the hereafter. He’s trading in his spurs for nothing but the stench of death. As for the coach’s passengers, if they’re being escorted to the afterlife, it’s a foreboding place with equally corporeal concerns. Arriving at the hotel, they enter a parlor that is smoky and gray, save for a pair of red velvet armchairs and a rich red rug that leads up a central staircase. True, the staircase ascends and there appears to be light at the top, but this is hardly the hopeful heavenly glow that surrounds Buster as he floats away. There’s something sinister about what lies ahead, perhaps because the bounty hunters lead the way by dragging their sheet-wrapped corpse up the steps.

So then, is Buster’s ballad the single instance of afterlife optimism in the film? The only other one that stood out to me was not a song, but a speech. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” centers on a tentative, touching romance between a pioneer woman named Alice (Zoe Kazan) and a trail guide named Billy (Bill Heck). Around a campfire one night, Billy praises Alice for being open to new ideas, saying that “certainty” isn’t something he’s found very useful in this life. “Uncertainty. That is appropriate for matters of this world,” he tells her. “Only regarding the next do we vouchsafe certainty. I believe certainty regarding that which we can see and touch is seldom justified, if ever. Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones. Wanting their comfort. Certainty. It is the easy path.”

The couple—who have decided to pursue their relationship even though he is Methodist and she is Episcopalian—proceed to paraphrase Matthew 7: 13-14 to each each other. “Straight is the gate,” Alice says. “And narrow the way,” Billy replies. It’s something of a duet, a wise and lovely moment that recognizes faith as distinct from certainty.

Having faith, after all, is not the same as being certain. Rather—as Paul reminded the church in Corinth—the faithful are to fix their eyes on what is unseen. It’s interesting that much of Paul’s letter discusses the hardships of life and the reality of death. “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day,” Paul writes. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” The glory-bound Buster seemingly makes fun of this notion, but in this quiet conversation between Alice and Billy on the Oregon trail, it’s given more credence. “Only regarding the next (world) do we vouchsafe certainty,” indeed. That’s the glimmer in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs that resonates with me, even if it’s a dim one.

The Coen brothers didn’t set Billy’s words to music, perhaps because King David beat them to it. In Psalm 27, David demonstrates a confidence that may have offered encouragement to the doomed good-for-nothings of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Let me add it, then, as a bonus track to the movie’s nihilistic playlist:

I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.

Topics: Movies