Parables don’t need origins
The robust social media response to the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—their new streaming-exclusive collection of short western films—has revealed that many viewers would like to see the title character in his own feature-length movie. That’s a terrible idea, and the desire for it suggests a misunderstanding of the role that the vignette plays in the collection.
YouTube comments from people who probably subscribe to CinemaSins, tweets from guys who like Quentin Tarantino movies a little too much, and painfully earnest Facebook posts from dads all agree on one thing: gotta have more of that Buster Scruggs guy. He kills people in funny ways and then sings about it, they say. Imagine his origin story, they say. I made my Red Dead Redemption 2 guy look like him, they say.
They latch onto the cartoonish nature of the violence—which is indisputably entertaining—but they don’t really consider how the short creates meaning, and they certainly don’t reflect on how that meaning applies to the other short films in the Buster Scruggs collection. The pop culture consumer’s desire to have a cool character’s background story sprayed in our faces for two hours is the very specific longing for which we were righteously punished by X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
We’re better off appreciating how, in its limited space, the “Buster Scruggs” short outlines the prevailing themes of the total work. That it is the title of the film collection, an individual vignette within it, and the name of the mock book for the frame story all suggest that, by going first in the series, it provides thematic context that gives us insight into the other shorts.
The Dybbuk and the Cowboy
A helpful point of comparison is the dybbuk sequence from the opening of the Coens’ A Serious Man. The movie is about a physics professor in 1960s America whose marriage and career are in peril, yet it begins with a seemingly unrelated seven-minute horror story about a 19th century Jewish family’s encounter with a possible monster. It precedes the film proper and has no historical or plot connection to the larger film, but its themes resonate throughout the whole work.
In the short, a man whom the wife believes to be a “dybbuk”—a possessed corpse—visits the family at night, and they can neither prove nor disprove that he is such a creature. The wife stabs him and he stumbles outside as they close the door behind him, leaving his fate and identity uncertain until the opening of the door the next day, which we do not see. Later, in the movie’s main plot, uncertainty and unknowability prove to be significant themes, because the protagonist suffers for indiscernible reasons and receives advice to “accept the mystery.” In particularly on-the-nose moments, he refers to “the uncertainty principle” and to Schrodinger’s cat, linking the ambiguity of his storyline to that of the family and the dybbuk.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”—the short—does something similar for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs the film. Even as it humorously perverts the wholesome form of the singing cowboy genre film with slapstick violence, it broaches the standard Coen questions about life’s irreducible mysteries and the unrepentant nastiness of human behavior. From Fargo to No Country for Old Men, the Coens have pitted their characters against the venality and ambiguity at the core of the human experience, and they send Buster and company up against the same.
However, this new work adds to the formula a standard concern from the traditional western, one that has haunted the genre since Owen Wister’s The Virginian and found its bleakest expression in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian—the role of the law in conditioning human behavior. Western writers often craft “civilized” characters who grow violent and animalistic as they slip the constraints of US law out on the frontier or across the Mexican border. In these works, frontier law itself frequently turns out to be corrupted, either under the sway of corporate interests or existing merely as the popular justice of the lynch mob. Many westerns ponder whether the law makes people better and whether its vagaries offer any meaningful realization of justice.
The Parable of Buster
This is the heady mix of ideas that the short deals in, slowly unfolding its meaning in a parable-like plot—and its soundtrack is key in laying the groundwork for its themes of degeneracy and the limits of the law.
Buster opens the vignette singing Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water,” a song about a cowboy seeking the solace of water in the harsh desert but seeing only mirages. It takes on figurative significance in the short as Buster’s dialogue reveals that he is not literally hard up for water but for human companionship, kindness, and recreation. He wants to find people to drink and play fair poker with, but his expectations lead him to assume the worst.
His wanted poster has him dubbed “the Misanthrope,” and while he says he rejects the title, his explanation makes it sound appropriate: “I don’t hate my fellow man, even when he’s tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that’s just the human material, and him that finds in it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.” He’s a man wandering from town to town looking for decency and anticipating hostility, doing in part the very thing he says is foolish. Appropriately enough, one of the lyrics he sings in “Cool Water” is “I’m a fool.”
As a result, Buster kills a lot of people. His murders are punitive, doling out retribution to those who trespass against him. It may at first seem ironic that a dedicated killer like Buster wears good-guy white, but he never instigates the violence. Rather, he returns violence with violence after having his misanthropy justified. Prior to that, he gives each of his victims the opportunity to prove him wrong. They never do, always choosing to attack him. The Misanthrope doesn’t hate his fellow man—he just shoots him in self-defense or by request.
Buster assumes that the world is a bad place where might makes right and the strong exert their power over the weak with impunity. In the context of the short, he’s correct, and the arrival of the Man in Black near the end settles it. Solely for the sake of proving himself Buster’s superior, the Man in Black challenges him to a duel and puts a hole in his head. Buster and the Man in Black respectively state the one law of this cruel world: “Can’t be the top dog forever” and “There’s a faster gun comin’ over yonder when tomorrow comes.”
Strength succeeds strength in a never-ending petty, pointless struggle. There is no “cool water” of mercy or grace to be found for relief. It’s a place where, as Buster personally demonstrated in a preceding scene, a strongman like Surly Joe might dominate for a while and have the world on his side, but the second a more lethal foe comes along, the whims of the crowd change and he becomes a joke.
The law doesn’t help. In two specific moments, the vignette emphasizes the comedic futility of the law to impact human behavior. First, when Buster arrives in the cantina and asks for whiskey, the bartender declines the order, telling him that they are in a dry county. When Buster sees other customers drinking it, the bartender excuses their behavior, saying, “They’re outlaws.” The law does nothing to impede the illegal act when bad actors are willing to break it.
Something similar occurs in a second scene in Frenchman’s Gulch, when the saloon rules require Buster to hand over his firearms. He does so in the belief that everyone will be “similarly disadvantaged.” Surly Joe, however, cheats the system, keeps his guns, and draws on Buster before having his own weapon turned on him. The rule, designed to promote safety, actually endangers Buster. As in the scene with the cantina outlaws, ruthless people have corrupted the intention of a law or code. The vignette suggests that, from the perspective of the Misanthrope, the law does little to mitigate the cruelty of the world, and it’s certainly no substitute for the “cool water” of genuine goodness.
In the closing song “When a Cowboy Trades his Spurs for Wings,” Buster voices hope for finding something better in the afterlife, fantasizing about flying up to Heaven and being “saved.” In a surreal sequence, he flaps around the screen as a ghost or angel, singing a duet with his own murderer, but as the song winds down, his desires turn briefly to skepticism. “There’s just gotta be a place up ahead where men ain’t low down, and poker’s played fair,” he says. “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.” His rhetoric is much the same as when he earlier crossed the desert searching for water and went from bar to bar looking for decent folk. He hopes for the good but expects the bad.
Two earlier moments in the vignette foreshadow this ambiguity. One is a comedic line in the “Surly Joe” song, when Buster quips of the dead poker player, “Oh, wherever he’s gambling now, I don’t know.” It’s a passing jest that grows in significance once Buster faces his own mortality.
The other detail involves lyrical omissions from the opening “Cool Water” song. In the original as written by Bob Nolan, the speaker fantasizes about both God and the Devil in the desert. But in Buster’s abridged version, the Coens omit the hopeful verse about God (“And way up there, He’ll hear our prayers and show us where there’s water”), leaving only the threat of evil. When Buster asks his horse if he can see “the big green tree where the water’s running free,” the camera cuts to a dead tree in the arid wastes.
That’s as sharp a contrast as there is in the gap between Buster’s hopeful song of salvation and his fretting that a song is all it is. The Coens also omit Nolan’s final verse, in which the speaker says of his mule, “Like me, I guess, he’d like to rest where there’s no quest for water”—a line that, were it left in, would resonate with and possibly validate Buster’s yearning for the afterlife. The resulting abridged song is, thematically, all mirage and no hope.
This rendition of “Cool Water” is a controlling element of the vignette because it establishes that the very things Buster pursues in the wastes—decency, honesty, and the hope of something supernatural beyond the mundane mortal experience—may well be mirages like those in the lyrics. The Misanthrope suspects that the presumed good aspects of the human character are probably tricks or illusions—and that the institutions tasked with cultivating those traits are in on the hustle.
Buster’s Grip on the Collection
The vision of a hell-world defined by “meanness” and ambiguity is the real “ballad” of Buster Scruggs that courses through the collection. The vignette lays out the themes and conceits of the overall movie, and that explains why its title—ostensibly just that of the first short—also serves as the title for the entire collection. The Coens reiterate the questions and concepts they establish in “Buster Scruggs” throughout the remaining five chapters.
The second short, “Near Algodones,” develops the law theme by giving us a situation in which a criminal justly convicted of one crime escapes, only to be executed for an entirely different one of which he is innocent. The paradox of the wrong justice landing on the right man echoes the legal confusion of the “Buster Scruggs” cantina scene, in which whiskey is illegal but readily available, so long as only outlaws are willing to drink it. Between “Buster Scruggs” and “Near Algodones,” the collection portrays law as unable to impose order on a disordered world, even if sometimes in its randomness it strikes at a deserving target.
“Meal Ticket,” the third vignette, explores the “meanness” that Buster earlier decried, as well as his fear that all the “songs” about better places and people might be no more than fictions. The impresario of the short cares for his handicapped artist only so long as he brings in revenue. The works the artist recites in his act are some of the greatest literary efforts of Western civilization: Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Shakespeare’s sonnets, and readings from the King James Bible among them. Yet these carefully-wrought and morally-minded works offer dwindling appeal to their audiences, who ultimately prefer the superficial enjoyment of watching a trick chicken solve math problems.
By killing the artist and replacing him with the chicken, the impresario reveals that he is as petty and venal as any of the people that Buster encountered. The short seems to admonish not only the impresario for his abject self-interest but also the crowd for their refusal to be challenged by the entertainment they consume. The artist performs complicated works that highlight the best traits man has to offer, but the behavior we see in the short hints grimly that the literature may not reflect the reality.
“All Gold Canyon,” the fourth and perhaps only upbeat vignette in the collection, concerns a grizzled old prospector who fends off a bandit from his pocket of gold and leaves with a fortune in tow after suffering a non-lethal gunshot. The connection to the “Scruggs” short lies primarily in the prospector’s agonized response to the bandit, whom he cannot believe would be so devious as to rob and assault him. An honest, compassionate man himself, he combats the selfishness of the claim jumper and emerges victorious.
This is the only one of the shorts that celebrates the triumph of something we might recognize as decency, but even that has its limits for the Coens, for the bookending images of the piece are of the prospector disrupting the natural world and then it falling back into its own order as he leaves. Hearing the prospector’s song, the animals flee deeper into the wild at the outset of the vignette—seeing him pull up camp, they creep back in, sniffing at the holes and equipment he has left behind.
These images put the prospector’s struggles in a larger perspective. The questions of good and evil his plight raises are human concerns tied to the acquisition of a resource valuable for its useless shininess. It is meaningless and small in the grand scope of the natural world, which endures his interruption patiently. “All Gold Canyon” pauses, bracingly, after telling an empathetic tale modeled on some of the “Buster Scruggs” themes to inquire whether that tale and those themes even matter in the big picture.
The fifth short, “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” gives the viewer a glimpse into what the “cool water” of kindness and tenderness might look like—before it snatches it away and replaces it with more “barren wastes.” En route to Oregon, wagon train leader Billy falls in love with the forlorn and hapless Alice, caring for her as best he can. When the other travellers complain about her yapping dog, he offers to do what she cannot bring herself to do and shoot it—but, in what seems to be a moment of kindness—even though he blames it on bad aim— he scares the dog off instead. This kind act leads to Alice’s death when she investigates the return of the dog and encounters a Native American raiding party.
Billy’s intentional kindness leads to unintended cruelty. Seeking companionship like Buster, he too finds the world unrelentingly inhospitable despite his best efforts.
Just as the “Buster Scruggs” vignette ends on the question of the afterlife, the final short concludes the collection itself with the ambiguous hint of a place beyond death. Ostensibly a Stagecoach-esque bottle story inside a travelling carriage, “The Mortal Remains” follows five characters on their journey to a destination that may be truly final. Mrs. Betjeman, one of the coach’s occupants, insists that her love for her husband is pure and ideal, as is the love she receives from her children. Her fellow travellers each try to convince her that the human experience is something meaner and more selfish.
Upon arrival at their hotel destination, the cinematography turns as ominous as the dialogue. The travellers share the foreboding hotel with a corpse that has traveled as luggage, and this plot detail coordinates with the dialogue to hint that perhaps they have stepped into the realm of the dead. The closing words of the book in the frame story (“He settled in for a long quiet”) lend credence to this possibility.
There’s no actual confirmation, however. As with Buster Scruggs possibly floating up to Heaven or alternately hallucinating as his lifeblood drains, here too ambiguity reigns. Either the characters have debated the virtues of the human character and stopped at a literal hotel, or their carriage—which, per the script, “will not stop” and “never stops” as a matter of “policy”—is a metaphor for the unceasing passage of time and their arrival point is mortal death. To quote Buster’s words on where Surly Joe is now, we “don’t know.”
Letting Go of Buster
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a complete short film that works well on its own but also provides a sort of Rosetta Stone for interpreting the collection of vignettes named for it. It embeds itself in the larger western genre with deliberate references to iconic films and tropes. It links neatly with the themes and imagery of the Coens’ other works.
What it doesn’t do is invite a Bumblebee-esque prologue. The characters are thin and flat on purpose, and the plot is deliberately simple. It’s a parable of sorts, and to try to pin an origin story on its protagonist would be like giving an extensive backstory to the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. To get more of Buster Scruggs, you’d have to pluck him out of his meaningful context and drop him into a meaningless Michael Bay ode to mere distraction. And that would be pure meanness.