The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Russian Literature for the West

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs exemplifies the feeling the Coen brothers seem to go for: the same bleak, lonely realism found in Russian literature.

One of my favorite Russian short stories is The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol. In it, a young man saves his money for months to purchase a new overcoat. When he finally gets the coat, his coworkers throw him a party; on the way home he is robbed of his new coat. He spends the rest of the story freezing in the Russian winter, trying in vain to get the authorities to track down his coat. In the end he catches cold and dies, just hours before the magistrate decides he should get the man a new coat.

Buster Scruggs is a set of six short stories. In each, we are presented with people engaged in a struggle to better themselves or their situations (with the possible exception of the first and last, but I’ll address those later). As they toil they are presented with difficulties that force them to choose between equally bleak and hopeless options, giving us bleak and hopeless results.

As part of my thoughts going forwards I’m going to address some of the plot points. Spoilers abound; go watch the movie before you read this so you get the full emotional experience of the movie - it’s worth it.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking story presented in Ballad is the story of a young handicapped orator. He’s escorted from town to town by a more capable, but less intelligent, companion. We see many times the beauty of his delivery as he recites everything from Ozymandias to the Gettysburg Address. Over the course of this story we also witness the crowds he draws dwindle and the coins he brings in lessen. He ends up killed by his traveling companion when the companion purchases a more-popular mathematically-capable chicken. This story hit me the most. The way the Coen brothers stress the value of the performer, showing the variety of content and delivery and especially the emotion with which he recites these pieces, causes us to appreciate his talent. And the agonizingly long murder scene is clear in its outcome from the first. We are forced to watch the companion stop the wagon, walk to the bridge, and test the drop with a rock. Finally we are spared with a cut to the wagon rolling quickly over a field, and given a confirming clip that shows us the inside of the wagon - now containing only a chicken.

Each of the stories in Ballad is presented within the turning pages of a book. We can read the first couple of sentences at the beginning, and the last few words at the end. The performer’s story, Meal Ticket, ends with the following sentence, capturing the feeling of what was lost:

And so they traveled, forward, onward, toward dramas the outlines of which blurred in the dozing of the man, and were by the chicken dimly surmised.

This story parallels in my mind the story of The Overcoat. We have in both cases a shining example of humanity: in The Overcoat, a man who works hard to improve his station, and achieves it; in Meal Ticket, a man who possesses an exceptional mind and exceptional talent, and with it brings high intellectual ideas to the common man. In both stories the conclusion we are forced to draw is that the world does not value the highest human ideals. The world is colder, more base, and the effort one puts into life is worth less than the station one was born into.

This feeling, though perhaps not this specific moral, is carried in the other stories as well. From the bank robber’s last glimpse of beauty from the gallows in Near Algodones to the ever-so-slightly early suicide of the young girl in The Gal Who Got Rattled, we witness the stark contrast between what is good and what we are forced to deal with in life.

There are two stories that don’t fit this mold in Ballad, however. First, there is the story of Buster Scruggs himself, a singer/gunslinger who is making his way across the desert. This story is more entertaining and surreal than anything else. I don’t find it bleak or sad in any way; it’s just an unusual take on the gunslinger story trope. The last story comes much closer to fitting into the Russian-literature archetype. We see five strangers on a stagecoach ride. They discuss many weighty topics ranging from marital fidelity to the nature of death, and most depart the stagecoach discomforted by their conversation. We do see this sort of short story in Russian literature. Specifically, there is a story called The First-class Passenger, by Anton Chekhov. In it two men on a train discuss the nature of fame, and how it doesn’t attach itself to those who are truly deserving. While they end up laughing rather than uncomfortable, they are no less affected by their philosophical conversation.

The last thing I’d like to address is a Coen brothers staple. While you often hear that you should show rather than tell, most media will spoon-feed a story to you to make sure you’ve got it. This is not so in the Coen brothers movies I’ve seen, and Ballad remains focused on showing you the story and making you figure things out. As a result the story feels more genuine and causes more emotional response. It’s a mark of high quality in film.

Overall, I enjoyed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It’s a well done movie, with interesting music, good writing, and good camera work. Let me know what you thought & felt in the comments.