You know there was a time not that long ago that Netflix was the source to go to for the weird and the wonderful. A place where movies and shows could get a shot at life that they probably otherwise wouldn’t see. Shows like BoJack Horseman, Big Mouth, and Santa Clarita Diet. All given life when Netflix cared about quality instead quantity.
In the midst of that era there were some obscure movies that made the cut. Most notably the one I’m about to tell you about: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Buster Scruggs was the brainchild of the Coen Brothers. Whose work includes No
Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, and Raising Arizona.
It is a Western anthology film split up into 6 short stories. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Near Algodones, Meal Ticket, All Gold Canyon, The Gal Who Got Rattled, and The Mortal Remains are the six vignettes that make up the film.
The first vignette, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, stars character actor Tim Blake Nelson as the titular character Buster Scruggs. Buster is a singing cowboy that travels from town to town getting in unwanted and unnecessary confrontations.
He is well-polished and well-educated and tries to use his words before having to pull a trigger. Scruggs often breaks out into song and breaks the 4th wall addressing the audience throughout his adventure.
In the 2nd short story, Near Algodones, we find a young cowboy played by James
Franco robbing a bank in New Mexico. While fleeing he is chased by a bank teller covered in pots and washboard body armor in the hope of deflecting bullets off of him.
He catches up with the robber and knocks him out. When the robber awakens, he is on a horse with a noose around his neck and posse declaring him guilty. The hanging is interrupted by a pack of Comanche warriors that slay the posse but leave the cowboy on the horse.
In the 3rd act titled, Meal Ticket, we find Liam Neeson portraying an aging impresario. His act is that of an armless and legless actor who recites poetry, classical Shakespeare and The Gettysburg Address. At the end of each performance the impresario collects cash from the audience.
After a performance yields no profits though the impresario observes a man on the street with a chicken that can solve basic addition and subtraction problems called out by the crowd by pecking at painted numbers. The impresario buys the chicken from the man and sets off for the next town.
Now with the chicken and his actor on board the wagon, he makes a stop on a bridge. He then throws a stone into the water to gauge the river below its depth. Next, we see him taking off again in the wagon with just the chicken as a lone passenger. Presumably, throwing his actor into the river.
The 4th story in the anthology is a retelling of the short story “All Gold Canyon” originally written by Jack London. It tells the story of a prospector who arrives at a river by a mountain and starts digging for gold. After 3 days he finally gets to the vein of gold for which he has been prospecting.
A young man that has been following and watching the prospector ends up shooting him and tries to steal the gold. However, the prospector fakes his death and kills the young man in the trench that he has dug up and leaves his body there to rot.
The 5th installment is a reimagining of the story “The Gal who Got Rattled” which was originally written by Stewart Edward White. It showcases the story of a girl named Alice and her brother named Gilbert. They are heading west to Oregon where Gilbert has promised Alice that he has a business partner waiting to marry her when they get there. But not long after they start their trip, Gilbert develops a violent cough and dies of cholera.
Alice continues the journey but is confronted by the wagon leader, Matt, who was hired by Gilbert, about payment for his services. Alice, afraid the money was buried with Gilbert, confides in a young man named Billy who is a part of the wagon train. Billy grows fond of Alice and proposes that he will marry her, take on Gilbert’s debt to Matt, and pay him off at the end of the journey.
One morning another man on the wagon train named Mr. Arthur notices Alice is missing. Mr. Arthur goes for a quick ride and finds Alice over the crest of a nearby hill playing with what was Gilbert’s dog. Mr. Arthur notices a Native American scout and war party heading in their direction. Mr. Arthur hands Alice a pistol and tells her that if he dies, she would be better off shooting herself than being captured.
In the final installment, “The Mortal Remains” we find 5 people riding in a stagecoach on their way to Colorado. A man named Thigpen and a man named Clarence state that they take this root a lot “ferrying cargo” alluding to a corpse on the roof of the stagecoach.
During the course of the ride a heated discussion breaks out between the passengers about the types of people in the world. Discussions on basic human needs, sinning and upright people, and spiritual and moral hygiene. To break the tension Clarence breaks out into song and sings a folk song to calm the passengers.
Thigpen then reveals that he and Clarence are bounty hunters and describes how
they attack and kill their prey. Thigpen tells stories while Clarence “thump” them on the head. Thigpen says he likes to watch his victims die. Especially the look in their eyes as they try to make sense of what just happened to them.
This is quite the anthology. The Coen brothers do a superb job of writing in all of these installments. The dialogue between all the characters is extremely interesting and immersing. The stories all work well as short stories. It’s easy to sit back and look at each of these vignettes and think that they would make a great movie, but ultimately, I think they work best because they are short stories. It ramps up the intensity and leaves you in wonderment. Often making you ponder what would or should happen next if the stories were to continue.
The tone here is another thing to touch on because as you can see, as the anthology
goes on the stories and tone tend to get darker and darker. Buster Scruggs is hilarious in an almost cartoonish kind of way. But each story thereafter pulls from the comedic stylings and adds a darker tone. By the end of the anthology not only is it the darkest storyline but the environment itself has become dark. Almost like a visual aid to show you the polar opposite of where we started.
And thus ends one of the most obscure westerns you’ll ever hear about this side of the Mississippi. Now get along little doggies. It’s time to hit that old dusty trail. . .