On the Competition for Recognition Part VIB Movie Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

On the Competition for Recognition

[This is an absolutely must see film. A spoiler alert – though I do not detail the plot, I sometimes mention the outcome in order to define the theme and the satire of mythological right populism.]

Cowboy movies in their original form were truly and literally horse operas. The myths underpinning right-wing populism, and the rapscallions that populate that mob in imitation of their mythological fantasies, are satirized in the brilliant movie anthology by Joel and Ethan Coen (Raising Arizona, FargoBarton Fink, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the 2018 digitally shot (an intended pun), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier. The movie won the Golden Osella Award for best screenplay at the Venice International Film Festival.

In contrast, the populist left celebrates mutual security rather than a gun culture of individual liberty, a government that protects rather than allegedly tramples on our freedoms. This is a brutal, but at times deliberately gentle movie about the fantasy frontier of mythological America. And death! In contrast, the populist left celebrates life and a utopian future rather than a mythological past that is both dead and a paean to heroic dying. [In addition to titles, I will italicize all references to the American liberal and populist left to set off the contrast as well as to adumbrate my forthcoming analysis of those positions.]

Distances for left populist protesters are close and varied rather than “great and monotonous,” as the troubadour hero of the first vignette of the Coen film tells the audience in his sweet rather than rough voice, though he is speedier with a gun than any gunslinger I ever saw. Yet he looks like a rube if you ever saw one. Tim Blake Nelson (who played Delmar O’Donnell beside George Clooney and John Turturro in O Brother, Where Art Thou? a real rube who believed that sirens turned his chain-gang buddy into a toad) plays this ironic version of Gene Autry, but he can cuss as well as strum a guitar. As well as being extremely dexterous, he is a verbal gymnast with weighty words like Archimedean and sonorous sibilants – “the San Saba songbird is my sobriquet [nickname] of preference.” The latter skill matches his quick trigger fingers. And he deserves to wear white for he condemns the violation of the rules of this establishment and behaviour against local norms.

Opportunities are infinite in the wide-open spaces of the west, especially the opportunity to be killed arbitrarily. Considering the repeated extolling of taking fate in one’s own hand, fate seems all to frequently to deliver a bad hand. Instead of the tall tales of a dusty leather-bound and worn volume full of colour plates, the populist left offers visions of an egalitarian and caring future.

In the Coen film, the first tall tale is located in New Mexico, as much for its name as for its perfect setting. The most unlikely hero, played by Nelson, is a short and thin and mousy gunslinger, nothing like the roughest and toughest and tallest rugged cowboy type. He is more of a dandy than a tumbling tumbleweed, though he wears white, rides a white horse, sings cowboy songs and shoots anyone who challenges him – but always in a fair fight for he is not a “proper outlaw.” He joins a poker game in a stand-in for the Goodnews Saloon and is dealt a “dead man’s hand.” After all, he is a true cowboy, a ramblin’ gamblin’ man. He survives to sing and entertain after his kill, the cowboy song, “Shirley [or Surly] Joe,” a play on the original “Curly Joe from Idaho.”

This becomes a dance number. Everyone, except the dead poker player and his outraged brother, join in. After all, Nelson denies he is a misanthrope as his wanted poster suggests. But that is his tragic flaw. Nelson dies at the hands of another gunslinger, not as a bow to brotherly love but to arbitrary death. He is killed, not by stealth or skill, but by the other cheating. In total shock and surprise, Nelson looks bewildered as he examines the bullet that has travelled through his skull and pierced his Stetson before he flies aloft on his angel wings to the heavens above. Nelson had been shot before he was ready. The good-natured Nelson meets a bad end in an anarchic culture that rhetorically celebrates fair play while, in practice, ignoring the rules of a duel.

In contrast, fairness is the bottom line of the populist left, not the fairness of the rules of fighting to the finish, but the fairness of rules to enable a fruitful life.

In the second story of the anthology, “Near Algodones.” [Algodones is a Mexican border town famous for its medical tourism], also set in New Mexico, we do encounter a tall and handsome but truly dim-witted cowboy played by James Franco. Instead of a sharp shooter, he is a fumbling idiot defeated by a banker dressed in the protective gear of cooking pots and a washboard. He meets his end by being accused and convicted of cattle rustling when he cannot even rustle up enough to survive. Instead of linking with others to save himself and thrive, he relies on himself to doom that self in the face of much more powerful natural forces of a polity that uses and abuses the rule of law.

Liam Neeson plays Harry Melling in the third tale, the “Meal Ticket.” It is perhaps the most repulsive story in the whole anthology and is shot in the evening hours as if to hide the beauty of Colorado and show off only its dark and scruffy American roots. If Buster Scruggs was always smiling and upbeat, Liam Neeson is the very opposite; his role is a grumpy, heartless and mean-spirited huckster playing to smaller and smaller crowds until his audience has dwindled to five disinterested stragglers who keep their coins in their pockets. Meanness is matched with meanness.

Instead of protecting the weak and the handicapped, Neeson’s character uses an armless and legless orator to earn his way in the Wild West, portrayed as cold and indifferent and increasingly bored, by reciting the words of the tale of Cain and Abel and of The Gettysburg Address. The contrast between the words he mouths and the local governing social norms could not be in greater stark contrast. The limbless orator cannot use body language to communicate, so the expression all comes through his mellifluous tone and his loquacious mastery of speech. Neeson then presumably (it is not shown) discards the progeny who has helped him earn his living, echoing the words from The Merchant of Venice that adumbrate the orator’s death falling “as the gentle rain from heaven.” Why does Neeson do it? In favour of a more profitable clever chicken. So goes the way of survival of the fittest, the precise trope opposed by the mantra of the mutually caring, merciful and protective left.

In the fourth and most beautifully photographed and aptly named tale, “All Gold Canyon,” where Colorado is revealed in all its golden beauty under the sun above, Tom Waits, a grizzled prospector, digs up one hole after another, each deeper and wider and longer than the previous one, until he digs a hole that seems to be his own grave as a stranger suddenly appears to threaten his great find, “Mister Pocket.”  The pursuit of gold at the cost of despoiling nature is a central if not the main target of the populist left.

The fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” starring Joe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, is most akin to a long short story rather than a short anecdote. Shot in Nebraska, it opens with a crazy conversation at a boarding house as she and her hapless but domineering brother set out finally to move forward towards their fortune at the end of The Oregon Trail. The long wagon trail evokes memories of hundreds of westerns that I have seen, including perhaps the most memorable and oldest one about wagon trains headed to Oregon, The Long Trail. Or perhaps there is a reference back to the 1959 western, The Oregon Trail. After all, there is a strong similarity between Prudence Cooper in that film and Alice Longabaugh. The realism and physical beauty of “The Gal Who Got Rattled” are at odds with the allegorical references of the plot.

James Polk, a protégé of Andrew Jackson and the 11th president of the USA, acquired Texas and then the whole of the southwest in the war with Mexico. He delivered another diplomatic coup to the future of Canada by acquiring the Oregon Territory in negotiations with Britain, pioneering the rough and tough diplomatic style of no-holds barred political negotiations while seeding the region with American guerilla forces in preparation for war against Britain.

In contrast to the actual history, the dialogue of “The Gal Who Got Rattled” has the tone and rhetorical pace of the Bible. However, Alice’s “romance” with Bill Heck (William Knapp) is pure, but purely transactional. The tough, rough cowboy, Heck, is tender-hearted and considerate. This time a dog, President Pierce, is the inadvertent source of fate. The dog was named after Franklin Pierce, the 14th U.S. president who beat the Democratic incumbent, Millard Fillmore, but failed to reconcile the north and south over allowing slavery in Kansas.

The dog survives, but not the female hero. Macho America was revived, but this time Pierce made a botch of it, alienating the abolitionists on the one hand by enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act in Kansas and Nebraska without preventing the strong propensity of the South to secede from the union. In spite of the high-mindedness of Bill Heck, the low-minded dogs again win. In contrast, the populist left and its feminine revolution are determined to let “all dogs go to heaven,” especially mousy female ones. [No insult intended, just an interpretation of satire.]

The last tale, “The Mortal Remains,” obviously unlike the other vignettes, was shot on a sound stage and is perhaps the most subtle of the satirical pieces. It is helpful if you saw and can recall John Ford’s archetypal movie, Stagecoach with John Wayne. which also follows a mismatched group of strangers from a variety of backgrounds riding west in a stagecoach, each equally uncomfortable sitting beside the others.

From the claustrophobic inside of a stagecoach, in such great contrast to the wide-open spaces of the rest of the movie, we listen to the mellifluous orations respectively of, and initially totally surprisingly, a trapper (Chelcie Ross). He describes his relationship with a native woman, neither knowing the language of the other. But it did not matter since all humans are the same. All are equal in the eyes of God. However, in contrast to the populist left, the trapper insists that all are ferrets.  This is the animism of the populist right as distinct from the humanism of the populist left.

A proper and religious lady (Tyne Daly as Mrs. Betjeman) retorts that humans are not the same; they are divided into sinners and those who follow the word of God. Moral values divide humans. The cynical Frenchman (the Canadian actor, Saul Rubinek as René) sitting on her other side, extolls subtlety and nuance, complexity and diversity, while slyly making suggestions that Mr. Betjeman‘s love for Mrs. Purity was indeed (wink, wink) “based on moral and spiritual hygiene.” With the raising of pluralism and diversity when the dominant theme is equality, the suggestion is that we get cynicism rather than just the scepticism esteemed by the populist left.

Thigpen, the Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill), turns out to be the head “reaper” or bounty hunter, with the suggestion that perhaps all humans are just grist for death in exchange for money. The populist left, on the other hand, appears to disdain transactional exchanges. Thigpen is an English snot and can be contrasted with his down-to-earth Irish partner, Clarence Brendon Gleeson, who sings the final ditty in the movie. The two partners carry the corpse into a mansion in the middle of nowhere with plenty of room for everyone. With some hesitation, the three others follow. René pauses, shrugs as if to say “What the Hell,” and enters.

The movie may be smart and snappy, wickedly wicked and equally cruel, but it is also a dark, hilarious and loquacious satire full of sardonic wit that parodies the underpinnings of the American myth of the West that is at the root of the fantasies of the American populist right.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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