The Tragic Pragmatism Of The Gal Who Got Rattled
Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) and Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) are a brother and sister en route via wagon train to Oregon in The Gal Who Got Rattled. On the trail, Gilbert dies of cholera, leaving Alice with no money, a $400 debt to Matt (Ethan Dubin), the boy running their wagon, and an uncertain future in Oregon. Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), the kindly cowboy in charge of the train, befriends Alice and, as he has grown tired of his life working the trail, he asks Alice to marry him, thereby assuming her debts and giving them both a future. Alice accepts his proposal; later, Billy's partner Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) finds Alice after she has wandered off the trail and they are attacked by Comanche. As he prepares to fight them off, Arthur hands Alice a pistol and instructs her to shoot herself if he is killed so that she isn't taken captive by the Comanche. Arthur is seemingly killed but survived and fought off the horde only to find Alice did as he instructed and killed herself when she thought Arthur had died.
Alternating between sweetness and tragedy, The Gal Who Got Rattled is really about the follies of rigidly adhering to pragmatism. The longest and most complex of the shorts in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the story begins with Alice following her failed businessman brother to Oregon, where she is ostensibly being traded as a bride-to-be to his prospective employer. After Gilbert dies, Alice's concerns are about settling his debts, while Billy Knapp gradually melds his romantic interest in Alice with his ability to legally solve her economic problems. Pragmatism even comes into play with Gilbert's dog, President Pierce, who Alice agrees to be put down because he annoys the wagon train with his barking. However, President Pierce not only escapes Billy's attempt at euthanasia, he ultimately survives both Gilbert and Alice.
Related: What's Next In Netflix's Future?
Alice's pragmatism leads to a sad end when she does exactly as she was instructed by Mr. Arthur and commits suicide, not realizing he survived his fight with the Commanche. It's doubly tragic because Billy is a good and considerate man who was looking forward to starting a new life with Alice, though he troubled him to leave behind the older Mr. Arthur, his mentor and partner of 15 years. In the Old West, even good people trying to do the right thing can have fortune backfire on them.
The Mortal Remains Is A Jolly Ride With Death
A lady (Tyne Daly), a trapper (Chelcie Ross), a Frenchman (Saul Rubenik), an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), and an Englishman (Jojo O'Neill) share a stagecoach ride together. In between singing songs, the trapper regales the passengers about his life on the frontier and his sexual relations with a Comanche woman. The lady, who is religious and en route to reunite with her preacher husband, is offended by the trapper's life of sin. The Frenchman argues the nature of love with the lady, who has a momentary health scare. The Englishman then tells the story of how he and his Irish friend - they are both bounty hunters - captured their latest quarry, whose body is being transported on the roof of the stagecoach, and what it felt like to watch him die. Finally, they all arrive at their destination and enter the hotel.
The Mortal Remains is the only one of the shorts where no one dies, yet it's very much about death itself. It begins with the lady, the trapper, and the Frenchman arguing human nature. The trapper is convinced people are no different from the ferrets he skins for pelts, the lady sees only sinners and the righteous, and the Frenchman argues that people change and behave according to desire and circumstances. Whether or not any or all of them are correct, the bounty hunters' story argues that death is the inevitable common denominator.
However, it's strongly implied that the trapper, Frenchman, and lady are actually dead; the Irishman's final song "Pills of White Mercury about a man slowly dying of syphilis, and the Englishman said he and the Irishman like to think of themselves as "reapers... harvesters of souls" and not bounty hunters. The Englishman's story of the Midnight Caller is a treatise about how humans try to process the moment of their death, so the passengers are being driven to their final destination - the hotel at Fort Morgan - by their spectral coachman. The Mortal Remains slowly reveals itself as a supernatural tale and is a surreal punchline ending to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is available to stream on Netflix.
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) release date: Nov 16, 2018