The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Six tales of life and violence in the Old West, following a singing gunslinger, a bank robber, a traveling impresario, an elderly prospector, a wagon train, and a perverse pair of bounty hunters.
- We open on a large, leather bound novel on top of a table that is titled: 'BUSTER SCRUGGS & OTHER TALES OF THE AMERICAN FRONTIER'. The film itself is an anthology of six tales taken from the book with six, consequent, colour plate illustrations for each story. We slowly open the book and observe the first colour plate and first story...
Story 1: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS Colour Illustration: Two cowboys rising from a gambling table, with one pointing a gun at the other and the caption below reading: "'You seen 'em, you play 'em,' sneered the surly man".
We begin the story in Colorado, in Monument Valley as we observe the protagonist of this story: Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson). He dresses like Glen Campbell's 'Rhinestone Cowboy', rides a white stallion named 'Dan', plays a guitar, and merrily sings the country tune: 'Cool, Clear Water'. He brings his horse to a stop in a low canyon, and "breaks the fourth wall" as he tells the viewers who he is and how he doesn't really consider his "outlaw" status to be earned as he removes a 'WANTED' poster from one of his saddlebags. He then resolves to ride over to a nearby cantina for a well-deserved drink and potential game of cards.
He finally arrives at the run-down cantina and asks the owner for a drink of whiskey. The unhelpful barkeeper tells Buster that whiskey is prohibited; the county is under prohibition laws. Buster points out the five thugs (and only customers) sitting at a nearby table drinking liquor and the barman explains that they are "outlaws". Buster explains that though he may have the appearance of a "tinhorn", he is in fact an outlaw himself. However, one of the thugs rises and provokes Buster into a duel. There and then, Buster quickly draws a fires on the thug, blowing a hole in his head! When the man's friends attempt to fire on Buster, Scruggs quickly guns the rest of them down as well before shooting the bartender who was in the act of reaching for a shotgun above the bar. Buster then holsters his pistol, opens the door of the cantina for a wounded thug and sets off on Dan, for the nearby town of "Frenchman's Gulch".
Eventually, Buster arrives at the town and goes over to the local saloon. He is accosted at the door by an elderly man who requests that he turns in all of his firearms, courtesy of "House Policy". Buster does so reluctantly, realizing what a disadvantage he is now in. He spots a nearby poker table and goes over, hoping to join in on the game as one of the players quickly exits. He takes his seat with the three other players but it's now that he happens to look at his hand: "Dead Man's Hand". He expresses to the table, his wishes to not play the hand, but is threatened by a large, brutish man at the end of the table by the name of Joe (Clancy Brown), who growls over: "You seen 'em, you play 'em!" When Buster refuses, Joe rises from the table and reveals a hidden pistol, holstered at his hip. He removes it and aims it at Buster, who promptly introduces himself before reminding the man of the "House Policy". Joe is about to open fire when Buster quickly kicks down on the wooden boards of the poker table, catapulting the table up and into Joe's hand, which is knocked backwards into Joe's face as the pistol goes off, firing in his face! Buster does this twice more, before Joe falls to the floor, dead! Buster promptly bursts into song over the deceased thug, and is soon joined by the contents of the cantina and piano player as they all sing "Surly Joe The Gambler".
However, without Buster's notice, "Surly Joe's" brother Ike (Danny McCarthy) has made his way into the saloon and sits, bitterly sobbing over his dead brother's body. Once the singing stops, Ike promptly gets up and challenges the reluctant Buster to a duel outside in revenge over his brother.
Outside, Buster readies himself and loads his pistol before meeting Ike in the street. He asks Ike if he needs a "count" before the shoot. Ike answers "Na'Sir", but this is a fatal error as Buster uses this to quickly fire upon Ike, blowing his index finger off! He then blasts off Ike's remaining fingers and thumb so that he's unable to fire back with his gun hand. However, this fails to stop Ike, who continues to struggle for his gun with his left hand. Buster realizes that he'll have to kill him but is determined to do it in style: he turns away from the struggling Ike and uses a small mirror to aim his pistol back over his shoulder! It's a near-impossible shot, but Buster makes it effortlessly, gunning down the agonized Ike!
He goes over to Ike's body and is about to sing when the sound of a harmonica, heralds the arrival of a young gunslinger (Willy Watson), dressed in black and riding a black stallion. He greets Buster respectfully, acknowledging his reputation as a "singing" gunman. He promptly challenges Buster to a duel; Buster is known as "the one to beat". Reluctantly, Buster consents to the duel and loads his pistol, candidly joking about how he should go into the "undertaking business". It's now that the young man asks Buster if he needs a count. Buster however, makes the same, fatal mistake as Ike, coolly answering: "Na'Sir". This is all the other man needs, who puts a bullet straight through Buster's forehead! Buster is puzzled, but upon seeing the hole in his forehead (with the mirror), he sheepishly remarks: "Well, that a'int good", and falls down, dead! Via a heavenly voice-over, the ghost of Buster Scruggs summarizes: "I shoulda seen this comin'; can't be top dog forever!"
The young man strolls over to Buster's body and bursts into song himself, singing a duet with Buster's winged, lyre-playing ghost: "When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings". Slowly, we see the young man ride away and watch, as Buster's ghost ascends into heaven and the song ends...
This first story ends and we turn to the next one in the book.
Story 2: NEAR ALGODONES Colour Illustration: An elderly man covered in pots and pans and clutching a shotgun, with the caption reading: "'Pan shot!' cried the old man".
This next story begins at an isolated savings bank in the middle of a desolate prairie. A young cowboy (James Franco), rides up to the establishment and goes on inside. He engages the jabbering bank teller (Stephen Root) in meaningless conversation but then removes a pistol from his side and aims it at the teller, demanding money! The teller sheepishly consents and stoops to remove the bills before firing off three, concealed shotguns at the footing of the cowboy. The young man manages to avoid each burst of fire but when he climbs over the till, he finds that the teller has apparently fled the bank. He removes the bills, places them in a large satchel and exits the bank. However, as he heads for his horse, his foot is grazed with buck shot, forcing him to drop the money and take cover behind a nearby well. He tries to get his horse to come to him, but as he looks over the well, he sees the crazed teller exit the side of the bank, wearing a set of pots and pans for armour and clutching his shotgun. The teller sees him and charges, the cowboy fires at him, but every time he fires, the bullet is deflected by the teller's "armour", who jeeringly cries at the young man: "Pan shot!" The cowboy continues to fire until he runs out of bullets, as the teller finally reaches him and knocks him unconscious with the butt of his heavy shotgun! The film cuts to black...
When the cowboy wakes, we seem him mounted on top of a horse with a noose around his neck and his hands bound. He is facing a lynching posse, led by a lawman dressed in black (Ralph Ineson). The lawman addresses him curtly, saying that he is sentenced to hang for the crime of bank robbery and asks if he is willing to give up his horse to the posse once he is dead. The cowboy refuses, but before his "sentence" can be carried out, the posse is ambushed by a small war party of Commanche Indians who promptly massacre all the members of the lynching group, including the lawman. Through the bloody chaos, the cowboy tries to keep his horse steady, so that he won't fall off and hang himself. Eventually, the brutal warriors depart after claiming their victory (and consequent scalps) and the cowboy is left alone. The horse is visibly unnerved and continues to trot further forwards, forcing the cowboy, ever closer to falling off and hanging!
He sits like this on his horse for a while, until he is suddenly discovered by a scruffy young drover (Jesse Luken), who's been leading a herd of cattle across the plains. The drover resolves to shoot the cowboy free and takes aim at the rope of the noose. He fires, but misses, and the horse bolts, temporarily hanging the cowboy! The drover fires again and again until finally, he shoots through the rope and sends the cowboy crashing to the floor! A little while later, the cowboy is riding side-by-side with the drover as they drive the cattle on wards, through the desert of Algodones, Mexico. The drover proposes for them to become partners when suddenly, he spots riders on the horizon! He sharply abandons both the cowboy and the herd, riding off in the opposite direction. The cowboy is puzzled, not understanding who's who or what's what...
The next time we see the cowboy, he is chained and being herded through a small town by a rough bailiff (Austin Rising). He is brought up to the town's grumpy old fart of a judge (Michael Cullen), and swiftly sentenced to hang, despite the flimsy evidence and his pleads of innocence. The cowboy is taken up to a public gallows, where his noosed along with several other, blubbering criminals. The cowboy looks down off the gallows, and spots a pretty young woman in the audience. He smiles, and remarks: "There's a pretty girl", before a hood his placed over his head, and the lever is pulled, to the thunderous applause of the crowd...
The second story ends, and now begins the third story of the book.
Story 3: MEAL TICKET Colour Illustration: A young thespian with a powdered face, looking heavenwards with the caption reading: "'The quality of mercy is not strained, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven'".
Our next story begins in the forested mountains of Colorado, as we follow an aged, Irish Impresario (Liam Neeson). He drives a small wagon that is painted with various illustrations, depicting great works of literature and theatre. The Impresario pulls into a small mining town where he dishes out pamphlets detailing an apparent show he intends to put on, featuring: "The Artistry Of Edwin Horatio Harrison"/"The Wingless Thrush". He now goes round to his wagon, which he converts into a small stage with lighting, a painted background and a chair in the center. Slowly, people begin to turn up for the performance and at 08:30 pm, the Impresario reveals the main event of his show: an arm-less, legless thespian who sits upon the chair in the center of the stage and is to be known as Horatio Edwin Harrison (Harry Melling). The audience is visibly shocked but enchanted, as this deformed actor begins to recite infamous works and speeches from literature, Shakespeare and real life including: "Ozymandias"; the story of Cain and Abel; Sonnet 29 and the Gettysburg Address. All the while, the Impersario goes through the audience collecting donations and tips.
This is the life of Horatio and the Impresario: travelling from town to town, to deliver recital after recital, as the Impresario cares for, feeds and cleans the disadvantaged thespian. As they travel further North, snow begins to set in. The profits also begin to decrease as the audiences rapidly loose interest...
One night, after drunkenly singing the Irish folk tune 'Weela Walla Wallya', the Impresario takes Horatio down into the nearby town to visit the local brothel. While the Impresario get's his money's worth, Horatio is left, turned to face a wall. Afterwards, the portly prostitute (Jiji Hise), asks the Impresario if his friend wants any "loving", but the Impresario answers "no", saying that he was once in love...
The pair give another performance that yields hardly any turnover as their crowd begin to leave. The Impresario is busy folding the stage up when suddenly, his attention is caught by what exactly the audience has turned to instead. He goes over to the assembled crowd and sees what they're all looking at: on a lighted stage (not unlike Horatio's), a chicken performs basic maths: addition and subtraction! People pose the chicken's owner various sums and the chicken is tasked with pecking at the right answers on painted slabs. The Impresario is amused at this spectacle, but more interested in the amount of people and the amounts of their consequent tips! Gathering all the money that he's amassed over his and Horatio's performances, the Impresario buys the chicken of its owner. He feeds it and cares for it, just as he's cared for Horatio, but the young thespian now realizes that he has sadly been replaced and is now effectively, expendable!
Through snow-covered pastures, the Impresario drives the carriage. Inside Horatio sits next to the caged chicken, eyeing it nervously as it watches him. The Impresario finally stops the carriage at a bridge overlooking a small river. He gets out of the carriage and goes over to the side of the bridge. Horatio nervously watches him as he picks up a large stone and throws it down into the river below. A sizable splash is heard before the Impresario turns back to the carriage and Horatio. He approaches with a sly grin on his face but Horatio knows only too well, what is coming...
A little while later, we see the carriage rattling on wards towards the snow-topped mountains. However, as we look inside, we sadly see: that the caged chicken, is the Impresario's only passenger...
This third story comes to an end, and we now look at the fourth story of the book.
Story 4: ALL GOLD CANYON Colour Illustration: An old man hangs of the side of a tall pine tree, looking out at the horizon, and sweeping hills of the mountain valley that lie before him with the caption: "And in all that mighty sweep of earth he saw no sign of man nor the handiwork of man".
Our fourth story begins in a truly glorious and totally untouched mountain valley, complete with thick patches of forest and shrub and a large stream flowing down the center of the valley. All is peaceful, all is natural, until we begin to hear the out-of-tune, croaky voice of an old man, sounding out from the patch of forest that rests at the start of the valley. The singing (of an old Irish tune: 'Mother Machree') belongs to an elderly prospector (Tom Waits), who leads a pack mule across the valley floor and over the stream to a hill, where he tethers the mule and takes a drink from the river. Up and down the stream, he vigorously begins to pan for gold. At one of the panning points, he sees that there are more gold specks there than at any of the others. So, he resolves to dig several holes at this point, proclaiming that he will find the gold seems buried there, as he refers to this apparent "Motherlode" as: "Mr. Pocket". He digs three large holes at this point on the hill, but only comes up with a few tiny nuggets of gold; not "Mr. Pocket"! He resolves to sleep on it, and find "Mr. Pocket" in the morning. He enjoys a small supper before going to sleep under the stars, looking forward to the next day and his continued search for "Mr. Pocket".
In the morning, while catching fish for his breakfast, the prospector spots a horned owl up in a tree with five, large eggs. He slowly clambers up the tree till he reaches the top and the owl's nest. He takes all five eggs and puts them in his satchel however, he happens to see the owl on another tree, looking down at him. The prospector feels sorry for the terrified owl mother, and kindly decides to replace four of the five eggs he took. He clambers back down the tree, and cooks the egg and fish for his breakfast. He then returns to his dig site and continues digging in the hole that has yielded the largest gold chunks. As he continues to dig, the gold nuggets get larger and larger until finally, the prospector reaches the fat gold seam that he's been looking for: "Mr. Pocket"! The old man is happy beyond words and prepares to dig up the gold when suddenly, a shadow falls over him: a young man (Sam Dillon) aiming a pistol, stands over the prospector. The grizzled old prospector knows that he's been tracked by a scavenger but before he can react, the young coward shoots him in the back! He falls down into the hole as his wound begins to leak blood across the back of his shirt...
The young man sits back on the edge of the hole, making sure the prospector's dead and rolling himself a cigarette. He takes a drag and puts it out before getting down into the hole and preparing to mine the seams. However, the prospector is not dead! He quickly turns over and begins a desperate struggle with the young man. He manages to wrestle the coward's gun away from him, and blasts him three time in the face! The young man now lies in the hole dead! The prospector is beside himself with fury but goes straight to the river, where he rinses his wound and checks its severity: luckily, it's just a flesh wound. He promptly returns to the hole and finally, mines "Mr. Pocket". He takes the nuggets and stores them in his satchel before burying the young scavenger and filling-in his other digging holes. He goes back to his mule and sets off once again, singing 'Mother Machree', though neither him nor the landscape are quite the same as they were at the beginning of the story...
As this fourth story comes to an end, we now look at the penultimate story of the book.
Story 5: THE GAL WHO GOT RATTLED Colour Illustration: A tall cowboy walks over a hill and towards a wagon train with a rifle over his shoulder and a barking dog at his heels. Another cowboy on a horse is riding up towards him, and the caption reads: "Mr. Arthur had no idea what he would say to Billy Knap".
This penultimate story begins in the dining room of a boarding house. A young woman named Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), her brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays), Gilbert's dog (a terrier named President Pierce) and several others enjoy dinner together as Gilbert discusses with the table, his and his sister's traveling plans: they are both traveling as part of a wagon train to Oregon where Gilbert has arranged for Alice to marry a business partner of his.
Several days later, we observe the wagon train as it makes its way across the rough frontier towards Oregon. Gilbert's dog is an almost constant nuisance throughout the journey, but Gilbert is blissfully ignorant of President Pierce's near-constant barking. However, tragedy soon strikes as Gilbert abruptly passes away from what appears to be cholera. Alice, along with the help of two of the guides: Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) and Billy Knap (Bill Heck), buries her brother as the train continues towards its destination. Alice too decides to continue the trip rather than return East. However Matt (Ethan Dubin), the drover of Alice's wagon, claims that the deceased Gilbert promised him $400, half of which he expects when they reach the halfway point at Fort Laramie, otherwise he'll return home. Fearing Gilbert's money was buried with him, Alice conveys her dire situation to Billy Knap, who offers his support in contemplating how to proceed. He also does Alice the favor of attempting to shoot President Pierce. However, he bungles the job and the dog runs off onto the plains.
Through the course of their conversations, Billy grows fond of Alice, and proposes to solve her dilemmas by marrying her in Fort Laramie, assuming Gilbert's debt to Matt, and retiring from leading wagon trains to build a home and family with her upon 640 acres in Oregon which he can claim according to the 'Homestead Act'. Alice is surprised by Billy's proposal, but she has grown fond of him, so she accepts. Billy then informs Mr. Arthur that this will be their last ride together.
The following morning, Mr. Arthur notices Alice missing, and rides over the hills to find her reunited with President Pierce and laughing as the dog barks at the antics of some prairie dogs. However, to his horror, Mr. Arthur spots an advancing Sioux war sentinel. He attempts to make peace signs but his signs are not reciprocated. He realizes that he and Alice will have to make a stand since the ground is riddled with prairie dog holes and would surely trip up the horse. However, he also states to Alice that such holes are just as bad for the Indian riders, as they are for him and her. He then makes a fort using his saddle, brings out his Winchester rifle and arms Alice with a pistol, so that if he's killed, she can shoot herself before she's captured by the Sioux warriors. Mr. Arthur then readies himself as the Indians begin to charge them. He opens fire as soon as they get in range, de-horsing several. However, a couple of riders are taken out as their horses fall on the prairie dog holes. As the Indians amass for a second attack, Mr. Arthur tells Alice that if he can take out their Chief, they may abandon their attack. He cocks his rifle and prepares for this final charge, summarizing: "This'll tell the tale!" He fires again, aiming for the Chief, however, the Chief's horse is suddenly thrown by a prairie hole and Chief goes sprawling on the ground. As expected, the Indians retreat after their Chief's downfall however, one Indian has survived the charges and clubs Mr. Arthur on the side of the head. He approaches Mr. Arthur and prepares to scalp him when Mr. Arthur suddenly pulls out a hidden pistol and blasts the Indian in the face. He then rises and returns to Alice. However, Alice has tragically done just as Mr. Arthur commanded and has shot herself in the head; to Alice, it looked like Mr. Arthur had died when the Indian had clubbed him! Mr. Arthur is heartbroken at such a pointless waste of life, and he heads off for the wagon train, casually blasting a wounded Indian as he walks! He returns to the train and is promptly greeted by a horsed Billy Knap, and gravely prepares to break the bad news as he's followed by a barking President Pierce...
After this fifth story, we now look at the sixth and final story of 'THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS'.
Story 6: THE MORTAL REMAINS Colour Illustration: A moonlit stagecoach charges on wards through dark forest as we look up at the cloaked and masked driver, and the final caption that reads: "Wether or not he heard, the coachman did not slow".
This final story begins at sunset, as five people, an Englishman named Thigpen (Jonjo O'Neill), an Irishman named Clarence (Brendan Gleeson), a Frenchman named René (Saul Rubinek), an elderly lady named Mrs. Betjeman (Tyne Daly) and a grizzled fur trapper (Chelcie Ross) ride to Fort Morgan, Colorado in a stagecoach. Thigpen says that he and Clarence often travel this route "ferrying cargo", alluding to a corpse on the roof, but he does not specify the nature of their business.
The Trapper rambles about his past relationship with a Native woman in which neither knew the other's language, but communicating through understanding each other's emotions led him to conclude that people are all alike in their basic needs, just like the animals he traps. Mrs. Betjeman, a devout Christian, indignantly rebuts that there are two kinds of people, upright and sinning, and explains that she knows this because her husband, whom she's traveling to meet after having been apart for three years, is a retired Chautauqua lecturer on "moral and spiritual hygiene." René challenges her dichotomy and the trapper's oversimplification with reflections on the unique and subjective nature of human experiences. As an example, René questions whether Mr. Betjeman conceives of love the same way Mrs. Betjeman does, conjecturing that if he doesn't, perhaps he has not remained faithful to her during their separation.
Mrs. Betjamen becomes apoplectic, and René calls out the window for the coachman to stop, but the driver doesn't halt. Thigpen explains that it is the driver's policy not to stop for any reason. Clarence sings the bittersweet folk song "The Unfortunate Lad", which calms Mrs. Betjamen. He and Thigpen then reveal themselves to be "reapers" or bounty hunters. Thigpen tells the group that their usual method is for him to distract a target with stories (like "The Midnight Caller") while Clarence "thumps" them. Thigpen remarks that he enjoys watching their prey die, especially the expression in their eyes as they "negotiate the passage" and "try to make sense of it."
The other three are visibly unsettled by this as they arrive at the foreboding hotel in Fort Morgan where they will all be staying. They remain in the stagecoach while Thigpen and Clarence carry the corpse into the hotel, then slowly dismount and warily make their own way inside...
Our leather bound book finally closes, as we finish these six tales of both good and evil on the American Frontier...