Ethan and Joel Coen, 2018
It would be too easy to see this film as an indictment of the United States alone, but its historical and geographical settings predate any solid sense of Canadian or American identity. The fact that the first scene opens with a cowboy on a horse ambling through Arizona’s Monument Valley and arriving a few minutes later in Medicine Hat — a town in Alberta many hundreds of miles hence — sets up a surreal mythological landscape in which everything that happens is pointing to something else. The characters move back and forth across borders without any sense of having moved from one political ideology to another and with a freedom we can now only wistfully imagine.
For the most part the cowboy, the pioneer, the prospector, the gunfighter, and the traveling actor didn’t see themselves as belonging to any nation but rather to the questionable destiny of the wild, unsettled west where they could exercise the rawest of rugged individualisms. Using these archetypes the Coen brothers juxtapose the nobility and vulnerability of the human race in a form we can all immediately grasp.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is comprised of six separate anecdotes, unrelated except for a common thread: the contest with our mortality and what it reveals about us. The film employs the familiar but effective device of beginning each tale with the opening of an old book, showing us first a sheet of rice paper and then a beautiful watercolour illustration with a cryptic caption that we’ll only understand once the story ends.
The whiff-of-the-absurd that permeates the film is established in the first scene when Tim Blake Nelson as gunfighter Buster Scruggs wanders through a stony canyon, his horse ambling along unreined as its rider plays a guitar and sings “Cool Water,” the classic Sons of the Pioneers ode to a mirage. Buster Scruggs represents a host of old cowboy acts like those of Roy Rogers, Hank Snow, and Gene Autry. His first stop is a wretched cantina (many a hero’s journey has one) in the middle of nowhere, no roads leading to it and no horses tied outside. (Realism this is not.)
Scruggs teaches us that those who live by the gun, though they be the sharpest guns in the west, will die by the gun. You’d think we’d know that by now, but in an era of school shootings, armed domestic violence, and gang massacres it does bears repeating.
“The Girl Who Got Rattled,” based on a story by Stewart Edward White, tells of the beauty of that glorious hope that keeps springing up in spite of one disastrous event after another, and how blind fear can bring down that hope in a second.
In “Meal Ticket” we’re brutally reminded of how we pay homage to high ideals and values that we continually fail to live up to. The gumption to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps becomes less admirable when in doing so we exploit and then abandon those things that are beautiful but not useful. We trash beauty in our pursuit of wealth, and given a choice between high art and cheap entertainment, the lowest denominator is what gets our money. The largest casualty is the soul of poetry.
The vignette “All Gold Canyon” is based on a short story by Jack London, in which an aged prospector wanders into a valley untouched by human hands and proceeds to hack up the virginal landscape in search of gold. The perfectly cast Tom Waits plays a role that seems to have been written for him, and his performance is historic.
“All Gold Canyon” is one instance of sitting back and watching others do all the work before throwing them to the curb and reaping what they sowed. Will this come back on us? It certainly should. But there’s a caveat: A respect for life and beauty may somehow bring justice and delay demise. The old prospector steals an owl’s eggs for his breakfast, but seeing the owl eyeing him puts three back and keeps one, telling himself that birds can’t count. This simple gesture of kindness, coupled with the reality of his need to survive, grants the prospector a miracle later on.
Naturally we hear “Streets of Laredo” early in the film. At the end a stagecoach passenger, the assistant of a “bounty hunter” (entirely symbolic of a darker and more primal vocation) sings the same tune but in the older Irish song from which the tune originated, “The Unfortunate Rake,” in which a man’s death results from gambling his health with ladies of the night:
Had she but told me when she disordered me,
Had she but told me of it at the time,
I might have got salts and pills of white mercury,
But now I’m cut down in the height of my prime.
Kudos to the Coens for the songs they chose to include: Most of the ditties in the soundtrack predate the rise of commercially recorded “country and western” music, whose purpose was to evoke nostalgia for the cowboy days with all their hardship, hidden blessings, and existential courage.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs manifests five of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing: 1) it provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor; 2) it’s about attainment of the true self; 3) it gives me tools that help me be a better artist; 4) it’s authentic, original, and delightful; and 5) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.