Warning: SPOILERS Below For The Ballad of Buster Scruggs!
Academy Award-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen return to the Old West in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a Netflix-produced anthology of six Western stories that each have thought-provoking endings.
Presented as a book of Old West tall tales, the Coens brothers wrote these short stories over the course of 25 years. The chapters alternate between absurd, humorous, tragic, and surreal, and play with different tropes of the Western. Each short is a standalone story, with the Coens not crossing over any characters or even settings. Rather, the common denominator of the half-dozen chapters is thematic; the shorts deal with the many different harsh realities of life in the Old West but especially death, which visits the characters in every story.
Whether it's the violently farcical musical exploits of Buster Scruggs himself or the haunting and ghostly final carriage ride of the sixth and final short, here are the underlying themes and meanings of each chapter of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' endings:
- This Page: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Near Algodones
- Page 2: Meal Ticket and All Gold Canyon
- Page 3: The Gal Who Got Rattled and The Mortal Remains
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Is A Dark Looney Tunes Cartoon
In the first short, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Tim Blake Nelson plays the affable singing cowboy who prefers to be known as "The San Saba Songbird". Riding through the desert with his trusty horse Dan, Buster stops at a cantina for some whiskey where he shoots down several outlaws who start trouble with him, displaying incredible skill and timing with a pistol. Continuing on his way, Buster arrives at the town of Frenchman's Gulch where he tries his hand at a card game in the saloon and is forced to kill the local rogue named Surly Joe (Clancy Brown). After leading the saloon in a hilarious song mocking Surly Joe and then besting Joe's brother in a duel, another singing cowboy called the Kid (Willie Watson) arrives to challenge Buster to a duel. Overconfident, Buster accepts and is immediately shot in the head before he even realized what happened. Now the new top gun, the Kid walks away as Buster's spirit ascends to Heaven, sharing a final duet with the Kid.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an absurd, dark comedy, much like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Buster breaks the fourth wall to constantly talk to the audience, and while he seems harmless and ridiculous, his white hat belies the reality that he is matter-of-fact deadly. Though Buster is polite and a good sport, he also understands that in the Old West, people are mean-spirited and prone to cheating and ill-behavior. He's never surprised when he's greeted with the threat of violence everywhere he goes, and he understands that death can come at any moment - usually from his own pistols.
Buster explains that things escalate quickly in the Old West with one thing leading to another - including his own sudden demise to the Kid, who specifically followed Buster to town to kill him. "You can't stay top dog forever," Buster says after he's shot in the head. The short is a treatise about human nature, ending with Buster's ghost (complete with angel wings) hoping that the next place he's going isn't filled with the same kind of rotten people he dealt with in life.
Near Algodones Is About The Inevitable
In Near Algodones, a cowboy (James Franco) tries to rob a bank, but the simple stick-em-up goes completely awry. Despite the bank teller (Stephen Root) cheerfully telling the cowboy about how he violently foiled the previous two attempts by bandits to rob his bank, the cowboy takes his shot and finds the teller extremely well-armed; after chasing the cowboy outside, the teller, clad in tin armor, knocks the cowboy out. The cowboy awakens with a noose around his neck but the posse looking to string him up is attacked by Comanche. The cowboy is finally saved by a cattle rustler (Jesse Drover) only to be set upon by lawmen and find himself in town with another noose around his neck. This time, nothing stopped the cowboy from being hanged.
Near Algodones is the shortest and snappiest tale of the six and nicely proves The Ballad of Buster Scrugg's point about escalation in the Old West. Essentially, the cowboy's fate was sealed when he decided to rob the bank and Death was assured despite how he seemingly escaped being hanged by sheer luck. The irony here is the cowboy was ultimately executed for rustling livestock and not for his attempted bank robbery, but the Coen Brothers are playing with the fact that he was done for no matter what. The cowboy does see the irony in his situation - his second time in a noose that day - and jokes, "First time?" to the man breaking down in tears next to him on the galley. At least the last thing the cowboy sees is a pretty girl before his quick and violent end.
Page 2: Meal Ticket and All Gold Canyon
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) release date: Nov 16, 2018