Meal Ticket: That's Showbiz, Folks!
In the grim Meal Ticket, an Impressario (Liam Neeson) arrives in a town and advertises a show by "Harrison: 'The Wingless Thrush' - Celebrated Thespian, Orator, and Entertainer." The performance is a one-man show by the Artist (Harry Melling), an actor with no arms or legs. The Artist performs "Ozymandias", various bits of Shakespeare, and closes with "The Gettysburg Address". The initial performance goes well, with a reasonably large and appreciative crowd, but as they travel from town to town, the crowds grow smaller and their profits dwindle. After a poorly attended performance, the Impressario sees a huge crowd gathered to watch a show about a chicken can apparently count numbers. The Impressario purchases the chicken and then throws the Artist off a cliff to drown before heading to the next town with his new show.
Harsh and melancholy, Meal Ticket feels like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' commentary on the predatory nature of show business. The Impressario seemed to care for the Artist (and we question whether they may be father and son), but as the story continues, we realize they never speak to each other and the somber Artist seems to understand his literal shelf life has a time limit. The Impressario ridding himself of the burden of the Artist, whom he had to dress, help go to the bathroom, and spoon feed, is made easier for him because his profits are drying up. Their show was also highbrow, whereas the chicken that can count drew bigger crowds; the Impressario realized he can make more money catering to the lowbrow tastes of the poor and uneducated.
All Gold Canyon Is About Claiming What You Deserve
A lone prospector (Tom Waits) comes upon a beautifully scenic canyon surrounded by trees and mountains and believes there's a pocket of gold to be unearthed by the river. Working diligently, he finds tiny nuggets in the dirt, which drives him further to find that pocket. The prospector digs deep into the earth and discovers the pocket, but his celebration is cut short when a man (Sam Dillon) who has been shadowing his claim shoots him in the back. The man doesn't realize that his shot didn't kill the prospector, who attacks and kills the man. After recovering from his wound, the prospector buries the man and leaves with his bags of gold.
With its breathtaking vistas and sweeping score, All Gold Canyon is the most inspirational of the shorts and is essentially a one-man show by Tom Waits. The prospector struggled into old age looking to strike it rich but he seems to have lived an honest, hard-working life. (As he tells his claim, which he calls 'Mr. Pocket', "I'm old, but you're older!") This speaks to the frontier spirit of the Old West and the romance of going forth to seek your fortune, that America and its riches were there to be claimed. The prospector also respects the nature he's trying to earn his living from; he returned (most of) the eggs he found in a nest when he saw the owl who laid them watching.
All of this is why the prospector was so incensed by the man who tried to steal his claim; not only did he shoot the prospector in the back, but he watched all along while the prospector did all of the work, just waiting to swoop in and take it all for himself. However, the prospector, who earned all of the gold in the canyon, not only lived but triumphed in the end, claiming his just rewards. Essentially, this is a form of the American Dream, which a lucky few were indeed able to achieve in the Old West.
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) release date: Nov 16, 2018