“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a six-part Western anthology film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Released in 2018, the film weaves together six separate stories that explore the American frontier, each with its own distinct flavor of the Coen brothers’ signature style, combining dark humor with poignant storytelling.
1. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” In the opening vignette, we meet Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a chipper singing cowboy who’s also a lethal gunslinger. Dressed in all white, Buster rides through the stunning vistas of the American West. His narrative is peppered with musical numbers, breaking the fourth wall, and a series of gunfights showcasing his paradoxically polite yet brutal nature. One iconic scene has Buster in a saloon, where he dispatches a series of antagonists using only his sharpshooting skills and clever wits, all while maintaining his affable demeanor. The segment ends with Buster being outgunned by a younger duelist, culminating in a surreal and metaphysical ascension to the heavens as he sings his last song.
2. “Near Algodones” This story follows a young cowboy (James Franco) who attempts to rob a bank. The scene is iconic for its absurdist humor, with the banker (Stephen Root) donning pots as armor. The cowboy’s plan goes awry, leading him to be captured and sentenced to hang not once, but twice. The first attempt is comically interrupted by a Native American attack, from which he narrowly escapes, only to find himself back at the gallows. This vignette ends with the cowboy accepting his fate, noting the irony of his situation.
3. “Meal Ticket” A haunting and melancholic tale features Liam Neeson as an impresario traveling through cold, desolate towns with Harrison, a limbless orator (Harry Melling). Harrison performs dramatic recitations from famous works to dwindling audiences. As profits decrease, the impresario is shown considering a more profitable attraction—a chicken that can perform basic math. The climax is quietly horrifying, as the impresario, in a grim act of pragmatism, replaces Harrison with the chicken, suggesting a dark, fatal end for the young artist.
4. “All Gold Canyon” This segment is a visually stunning piece set in a lush valley that an old prospector (Tom Waits) calls “Mr. Pocket.” The prospector meticulously works to find gold, eventually striking it rich. As he excavates the gold, he is watched by a young man who decides to shoot him and steal the gold. However, the prospector is not easily vanquished. He outwits and kills the would-be thief, returning to his work with a newfound appreciation for the beauty of the canyon.
5. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” One of the more extended and character-driven tales, this narrative follows Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) who is journeying along the Oregon Trail with her brother, seeking a new life. After her brother’s sudden death, she finds companionship with a wagon trail leader, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). Their bond grows, with Billy proposing marriage. However, in a tragic twist, a misunderstanding during a Native American raid leads to Alice’s accidental death by her own hand, just as rescue arrives. The sense of loss and what-could-have-been is palpable and represents some of the Coens’ most touching work.
6. “The Mortal Remains” The final vignette is a metaphoric journey featuring five passengers in a stagecoach heading to an unknown destination. The passengers—a trapper, a lady, a Frenchman, an Englishman, and an Irishman—engage in existential debate. Their dialogue explores themes of morality and human nature, leading to a tense and ambiguous ending as they arrive at a hotel, which may symbolically represent the afterlife.
Each story within “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” showcases the Coen brothers’ range, from black comedy to tragic romance, all while painting a picture of the harsh realities of life in the American West. The film reflects on the genres of Western folklore and the human condition, leaving an indelible mark on the viewer through its rich narrative tapestry and memorable, iconic scenes