The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Western, written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It has an unusual format for it is organized in the form of a book of six tales about the American Frontier. Color plates with captions precede each story and reveal something of what is to come. All six stories, or vignettes, have a distinct flavor, each has a title and a different cast of characters. They vary in tone, narrative styles and filming techniques, but all display the trademark irony and dark humor so distinctive of the Coen brothers. In these tales, horses have names, people don’t play fair and cheat at cards, and outlaws have a cavalier attitude towards death—others’, not their own. Saloons, traveling actors, moving caravans, outlaws, bounty hunters, old wisdom, and rough and quick justice grace the screen Old Western style.
The first vignette, ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’, lends the movie its title, and is the story of a singing outlaw who is fast with a gun and has a specific set of principles. He gets outsmarted and outgunned by an unknown wanderer with something to prove. This story and the one that follows, ‘Near Algodones’, are the shortest and the most humorous in the collection. In ‘Near Algodones’, a young bank robber is stopped by a pan-covered old man.
‘Meal Ticket’ is the third story, which immediately becomes more dramatic and darker in tone. A professional trouper, a man without arms or legs, earns his food and shelter, in the dead of winter, traveling from town to town in a cart driven by his manager. As the audiences dwindle, his luck runs out as his manager devises a plan to get rid of him. In ‘Meal Ticket’, the filmmakers show a clever narrative device showing snippets of one speech cut short by yet another, to illustrate how the performances were so alike that they began to blend in together. The dramatic recitations, the makeup, and the stark winter landscape complete the picture.
‘All Gold Canyon’ is based on a story by Jack London. It’s the story of an old man who arrives singing in an idyllic valley populated by wild creatures who escape upon hearing him. A sign of things to come? The old man starts digging for dirt and panning it in the adjacent river, looking for a huge ore rock that is going to set him for life...But he almost meets his end instead.
‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ is the vignette with fuller development in the collection and the closer the audience gets to a love story set in the Old West. Sprawling prairies, slanting sun, yellowed grass, conversations by the fire, and a moving caravan set the mood for a story in which a gal named Alice, and her brother, embark on a quest to Oregon where he is to commence a business enterprise. Only her brother dies along the way and she has no means to pay the boy manning her oxen and cart. She refuses to go back because she has no one in the world waiting for her. A marriage arrangement promises to fix her problems and give her a new start in life, but a Comanche war party intrudes in the newfound plans.
‘The Mortal Remains’ is the last vignette and it’s inspired by a story written by Stewart Edward White. Five people, two of them bounty hunters with their dead cargo in tow, are traveling by coach. They converse and argue along the way, each dispensing hard-earned wisdom, until one of the bounty hunters breaks into mournful singing, followed by his partner telling a mysterious story titled “The Midnight Caller”. The story rattles the other three travelers, who dread to leave the coach once they reach their destination at the stroke of midnight. Dark humor, a deserted town cast in fog and blue light, and a silent coachman in a hurry, set the mood for this atmospheric tale.The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a refreshing, unique, and thoroughly entertaining entry in the Western genre. Once more, the Coen brothers prove that they are the reigning masters of irony and dark humor in distinctive settings.