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Film / The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Western Anthology Film by The Coen Brothers. It was released on November 16, 2018, on Netflix. The film tells six unconnected stories set in The Wild West, with the framing device of an anonymous hand flipping through an illustrated book of short stories.

The chapters are:

  • "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs": An affable singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) navigates several confrontations with gunslingers.
  • "Near Algodones": A would-be bankrobber (James Franco) gets himself into various predicaments.
  • "Meal Ticket": A limbless orator (Harry Melling) and his impresario (Liam Neeson) find their fortunes dwindling.
  • "All Gold Canyon": An old prospector (Tom Waits) attempts to locate an elusive pocket of gold.
  • "The Gal Who Got Rattled": A sheltered young woman (Zoe Kazan) faces various challenges while traveling with a wagon train to Oregon.
  • "The Mortal Remains": Five strangers (Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross, Brendan Gleeson, and Jonjo O'Neill) converse on a stagecoach ride.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Affably Evil:
    • Buster Scruggs, a friendly and golden-throated singing cowboy who cheerfully and mercilessly guns down anyone who threatens him and is a wanted outlaw in at least one county. Fittingly for the trope, he objects to being labeled a "misanthrope" on his wanted poster, since he does not hate his fellow man. How "evil" he is may be debated over, as we never see him harm anyone who wasn't threatening to kill him, but he's shockingly sanguine about wandering into deadly situations and then shooting his way out. His fate in the afterlife is also weird, as he's seen becoming an angel, complete with harp and wings, as he's seen fluttering his way into Heaven.
    • The Englishman in "Mortal Remains" admits to enjoying watching people die, specifically the look in their eyes. He's also quite a cheery fellow and a lovely singer. His Irish partner shares the same breezy and amiable disposition.
  • Afterlife Express: It is strongly implied that, in "The Mortal Remains", the stagecoach in which the passengers are riding may be this.
  • Always Someone Better:
    • Buster Scruggs is killed by the Kid, a younger musical gunslinger. Buster lampshades this as he dies, admitting "you can't be top dog forever". The text on the final page of the short story implies that the Kid will meet his own match in time, perpetuating the cycle.
    • The Artist in "Meal Ticket" is replaced by a chicken that can do simple math.
  • Ambiguous Ending: The characters in "The Mortal Remains" are heavily implied to be the souls of the dead on their way to some unspecified afterlife, but it's never actually confirmed.
  • Ambiguous Situation:
    • It is never revealed whether the chicken from "Meal Ticket" can actually do math or whether it was some kind of trick.
    • The Artist in "Meal Ticket" never says a word or makes a sound when he's not on stage. His face is aware, but he always seems blank. Is he an Idiot Savant? A Shell-Shocked Veteran? Or maybe his living situation has put him in near-catatonic depression that only lifts when he performs?
  • Ambiguously Evil: The title character. He's very good-natured and friendly, he claims not to hate his fellow man, and most of his killings are either done in something like self-defense or inflicted on people who had it coming, but he seems to resolve every situation with violence and has no qualms about celebrating each fresh kill with a lively song-and-dance number. Regardless of his crimes, they're apparently not enough to keep him from reaching Heaven in angelic form, unless this is a universe where everyone gets to reach the Promised Land in the afterlife regardless of their sins on Earth.
  • Anthology Film: The film is comprised of six short films set in The Wild West. Four are based on short stories written by the Coens over a 25-year period. "All Gold Canyon" is a direct adaptation of a short story by Jack London. "The Gal Who Got Rattled" is credited as being Inspired by… a story by Stewart Edward White.
  • Anyone Can Die: And since it's an anthology film, most of them do.
  • Artistic License – Linguistics: The man Buster Scruggs sings a song about after killing him has his name spoken as Surly Joe, but, since the song lyrics say "a cedilla on the C of Curly Joe", it's implied that his name is actually written as Çurly Joe. However, the "ç" that sounds like "s" as in "surly" is only used — never as an initial — in Portuguese and French, and English only uses the cedilla in a few words loaned from French itself.
  • Artistic License – Physics: In "Near Algodones," all of the Cowboy's bullets bounce harmlessly off the Bank Teller's improvised armor despite it being made of common pots, pans and a washboard. In Real Life, the bullets would have gone straight through. And even if they did ricochet, the force of the bullet impact would still be considerable.
  • Artistic License – Geography: In the opening pages of the In-Universe book "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs", it notes that Buster is a half day's ride from Medicine Hat, then fades to scenery that is clearly Utah/New Mexico. A half day's ride from Medicine Hat, Alberta might get you 15 miles south, still clearly within the prairies and well within Canada (unless the writers meant Mexican Hat, which is a small place in Utah).
  • As You Know: Mr. Arthur shouts out "dog hole!" whenever an attacker's horse stumbles on one, mostly for the benefit of audience members who weren't paying enough attention to understand why horses keep tripping. In character, it also works as a gleeful, know-it-all cry every time an enemy falls.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • No tears are shed for Miss Longabaugh's brother Gilbert, who gives his sister some damningly faint praise and is later revealed to be a bit of a liar as well as a Confederate sympathizer.
    • Çurly/Surly Joe, one of Buster Scruggs' victims who unambiguously had it coming — he pulls a gun on Buster for refusing to play a hand of cards, despite the saloon being a Truce Zone and knowing that Buster had willingly handed over his own weapons.
  • "Awkward Silence" Entrance: Buster Scruggs draws a stunned silence from the grizzled outlaws in a Bad Guy Bar due to his dapper white duds.
  • Badass Bystander: The old and bespectacled teller in "Near Algodones" tells a story about taking down two previous would-be bank robbers that sounds like bluster but is, if anything, an understatement. He's handy with a scattergun, can run at speed while being fired upon while covered in a suit made of pans, and he hits the bankrobbing Cowboy so hard that he goes into a fevered concussion that lasts for days.
  • Bad Guy Bar: Buster Scruggs frequents two during his story: a seedy cantina and a crowded saloon.
  • Berserk Button: Buster has a very patient demeanor, all things considered. However, the one time we do see him briefly lose his cheerful facade is when Çurly/Surly Joe's brother either intentionally or unintentionally calls him by the wrong moniker. Scruggs is called the "West Texas Twit" rather than the "West Texas Tit" (a bird). This may have been the reason why Buster's duel with the brother is so drawn out and painful.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: A tragic example in "The Gal Who Got Rattled." Mr. Arthur gives Miss Longabaugh such a gruesome account of what will happen to her if she doesn't kill herself to avoid capture, she shoots herself the moment that Mr. Arthur's fight with the Indians takes a bad turn, ultimately dying needlessly.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Buster Scruggs. He may be a skinny, singing dandy who's almost impossible to take seriously, but he's also a lightning-fast gunslinger with Improbable Aiming Skills and a habit of leaving piles of bodies in his wake.
  • Bittersweet Ending: "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs" technically ends this way, with Buster becoming an angel after dying and singing a duet with the man that killed him.
  • Black Comedy: Each chapter has at least one example:
    • "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs": Buster Scruggs' Bloody Hilarious violence is in rather stark contrast to his amiable personality and the Cartoon Physics of the first chapter.
    • "Near Algodones": The Cowboy's literal Gallows Humor when asking a fellow convict if it's his "first time."
    • "Meal Ticket": The scant and apathetic audience members silently starting to stand after the Artist's penultimate performance, only to awkwardly sit back down when he begins his final speech for the collections segment.
    • "All Gold Canyon": The Prospector is shot near the end of the story. After shooting him, the murderer sits by and rolls a cigarette. We proceed to watch him silently smoke the cigarette, snuff it out and save the rest for later. And then when the man drops down into the hole, the Prospector finally gets up and kills the man who shot him.
    • "The Gal Who Got Rattled": Billy Knapp guiltily admitting that he completely bungled his attempt to put down a dog.
    • "The Mortal Remains": The pair of bounty hunters breezily cracking jokes and exchanging compliments as they describe their craft and haul a corpse into a hotel.
  • Bloody Hilarious: Buster Scruggs' violent mayhem is played for pure Slapstick.
  • Bottle Episode: "The Mortal Remains" takes place almost entirely inside a stagecoach.
  • Bounty Hunter: The Englishman and the Irishman in "The Mortal Remains" are said to be bounty hunters, though they dislike the term (they prefer "reapers").
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Buster Scruggs directly addresses the audience throughout his short.
  • Breather Episode: "All Gold Canyon" has a noticeably less tense atmosphere when compared to the vignettes before and after it. While things do get tense when the Prospector gets shot by a claim jumper right as he discovered a gold vein and almost dies, that's about it.
  • Bury Your Disabled: The Artist in "Meal Ticket" is drowned in a river. The death happens offscreen, so the audience can only imagine what it was like. Previous scenes go out of their way to emphasize how dependent the Artist is on the Impresario physically — but also how the Impresario has no talent or apparent skills himself, making him equally dependent on the Artist... until the very moment he thinks he has a working replacement.
    • Alice's brother in "The Gal Who Got Rattled" is shown walking in a way that suggests he may have rickets, however it appears to have no bearing whatsoever on the story; any difficulty he has walking is completely incidental to his death by cholera, and his whole characterisation is based on him being a mean-spirited, useless failure.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: The undertakers look practically jaded as they carry Buster Scruggs' body away.
  • Call-Back: After "Meal Ticket" features a counting chicken, the prospector in the following segment "All Gold Canyon" asks "How high can a bird count anyway?".
  • The Cameo: Due to having six casts in one film, many roles are extremely small but filled with recognizable actors:
    • Clancy Brown plays a walk-on role as a goon who pulls a gun on Buster Scruggs.
    • David Krumholtz as a random French gambler who warms to Buster Scruggs.
    • Stephen Root as the bank teller in "Near Algodones".
    • Grandma Turner, a character from the Coens' previous Western True Grit, makes an appearance at the beginning of "The Gal Who Got Rattled".
  • Cartoon Physics: The title character runs on this in his own segment, and the trope is portrayed as a jarring contrast to the violence he inflicts on everyone around him.
  • Character Filibuster: "The Mortal Remains" largely consists of the passengers in the stagecoach engaging in these.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Mr. Arthur says that he and Miss Longabaugh can't flee the Indians because of the numerous gopher holes around. When the Indians attack, many of them get thrown when their horse stumbles on a "dog hole!"
  • Chekhov's Skill: In "The Gal Who Got Rattled," Billy Knapp describes Mr. Arthur as a "crack shot". He ultimately makes use of his marksmanship in the end.
  • Cherry Tapping: In the duel with Çurly/Surly Joe's brother, Buster Scruggs decides to shoot his final bullet behind his back, while aiming with the aid of a hand mirror, just to show off.
  • The Chew Toy: The Cowboy from "Near Algodones".
  • Combat Pragmatist: Most of the characters, as a deliberate contrast to the Hollywood concept of the honorable Western gunfight.
    • When Buster Scruggs is caught without his guns by an armed Çurly/Surly Joe, he admits that he has to get "downright Archimedean" in his tactics.
    • Both Buster and the Kid in "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" defeat their dueling opponents by drawing before their opponents are ready, although both are sporting/honorable enough to ask their opponent if they need a count first, only firing when the answer is no.
    • The Teller in "Near Algodones" keeps three scatterguns behind the counter aimed directly at anyone who might try to rob him. The Cowboy is just lucky enough that the first one misses (and smart enough to get out of the way of the other two).
    • The Prospector in "All Gold Canyon" is much older than his opponent and is weakened by a gunshot wound, so he plays dead until the claim jumper gets down into the hole with him and then throws dirt in his eyes when he starts to get the advantage.
  • Comedic Sociopathy: Buster is a sadist who kills an entire group of cowboys in a bar. Buster then goes to a town, kills another person in an almost cartoonish manner, and then blows another man’s five fingers off one by one before killing him. The worst part is that almost all the deaths are presented in a hilarious way, but the results are realistically bloody and painful.
  • Companion Cube: The prospector in "All Gold Canyon" speaks to the vein of gold he's trying to find, addressing it as "Mister Pocket".
  • Cowboy: Most of the characters, naturally.
    • Buster Scruggs is a parody of the "singing cowboy" trope of Golden Era Westerns. He's introduced singing "Cool Water" while riding his horse through Monument Valley. He actually seems to be an outlaw gunslinger. He's later challenged by another musical gunslinger who plays a harmonica.
    • The luckless, nameless bank robber (credited only as "Cowboy") in "Near Algodones" just goes from one bad situation to another.
    • Billy Knapp is a trail hand with 15 years experience, but it's his boss Mr. Arthur who gets the big action scene of the story.
  • Crazy-Prepared: The bank teller at the freestanding bank in the middle of nowhere in "Near Algodones" has three scatterguns behind the desk ready to fire at knee height and a suit of homemade armor just in case he's robbed.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Most of the stories feature examples:
    • Buster Scruggs himself is a rather goofy singing cowboy in a dapper white suit. Nobody would suspect that he's one of the fastest, most agile, and most sadistic gunslingers in the country from looking at him or speaking to him.
    • The bank teller in Near Algodones seems like a crazy old man telling tall tales of all the robbers he's killed or captured, until he does just that to the cocky young bank robber.
    • The young bandit thinks that the old prospector will be an easy target. He finds out otherwise.
    • In The Mortal Remains, the Englishman presents himself as an effete dandy, and his Irish companion seems rather daft as well. They turn out to be two sadistic bounty hunters. It's also suggested that they may be more than that in a Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane situation that implies that the Englishman is the Devil and the Irishman the Grim Reaper.
  • Crowd Song: Buster gets the pianist to start playing and the crowd to join in the chorus of a song mocking the man he's just killed in front of all of them. Justified, though, in that he sings it to the tune of "Little Joe the Wrangler", a popular song of the time.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: In "The Gal Who Got Rattled," Gilbert says that his sister can be charming and attractive "when she has a mind to be," then adds that she rarely has a mind to be.
  • Dead Man's Hand: When Buster Scruggs arrives at the saloon in Frenchman's Gulch, a man at a poker table refuses to play his hand and quits the game. One of the players tries to force Buster to play the hand instead. Seeing that it's the "dead man's hand," Buster also refuses. Buster dies several minutes later, after being challenged by the Kid.
  • Death by Cameo: Clancy Brown shows up as an intimidating bar-room thug, threatens Buster, and is immediately blown away by him in cartoonishly violent fashion.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: Buster Scruggs is a "singing cowboy" in the vein of Roy Rogers and similar actors in the cowboy craze of The '40s and The '50s (which was also homaged by the Coens through the character of Hobie Brown in their earlier Hail, Caesar!). Placed in the universe of a not-meant-to-be-child-friendly "realistic" Western movie, he comes across as a maniac, and that is without taking into account the barrage of senseless murders he commits (he's quick to say that he "doesn't hate his fellow man" as his "Wanted!" Poster claims he does, but he sure does look like The Sociopath when he leads a whole saloon in a song-and-dance number right after he killed a guy).
  • Deconstructive Parody: Buster Scruggs is essentially Roy Rogers from Hell. He's a "white hat" singing cowboy dressed all in sparkling white. His depiction takes apart the whole "singing cowboy" archetype by showing how utterly insane (and terrifying) someone would come across as in real life if he killed a man and then sang a musical number about it (right in front of the guy's brother, no less).
  • Decoy Protagonist: If you didn't already know that the film is an anthology, you would be forgiven for assuming that Buster Scruggs is the protagonist of the whole film, since he's the protagonist of the first short and his name is in the title of the movie.
  • The Determinator: Çurly/Surly Joe's brother is a rather tragic example. When his brother is killed, he challenges Buster to a showdown. After Buster casually shoots off every finger on his right hand, he still tries to draw his gun with the left. It goes about as well as you'd expect.
    Buster Scruggs: Looks like when they made this fella, they forgot to put in the quit.
  • Died Happily Ever After: The title character, who graciously reflects that "you can't be top dog forever", and ascends to heaven while singing a duet with the man that killed him.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: In "The Mortal Remains," the Irishman's song "The Unfortunate Lad" is about a man who becomes "disordered" by his lover and dies. He says he would have taken "salts or pills of white mercury" had he known about it earlier. Based on these clues, you can infer that the man got syphilis.
  • Downer Ending: "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs", "Near Algodones", "Meal Ticket", and "The Gal Who Got Rattled" all end with a main character's death, though you can likely argue Buster was a Villain Protagonist. Really, "All Gold Canyon" is the only short that ends on something of a high note.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: "All Gold Canyon" is the only short to end this way.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • The Prospector from "All Gold Canyon" shows that he's a decent guy and worth rooting for when he realizes he's robbing an owl of her eggs, and puts all of them back but the one he needs for a meal. This makes his ultimate survival and victory all the more satisfying for the audience.
    • Buster Scruggs is introduced as a chipper singing cowboy, but he shows his true colors when he picks a fight with a group of outlaws and cheerfully guns them all down, leaving one to bleed out.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Çurly/Surly Joe turns out to have a brother, who tearfully challenges Buster Scruggs to a showdown. Buster kills him, too, though not before maiming him one finger at a time.
  • Evil Wears Black: The Kid dresses in black, the better to contrast Buster Scruggs' dapper white duds, though he's no better or worse.
  • Exact Words: Both Buster Scruggs and the Kid ask their opponents if they want a countdown before their duels. Their opponents answer "no", prompting them to shoot immediately, before the opponent is even prepared.
  • Face Death with Dignity:
  • Faking the Dead:
    • The Prospector in "All Gold Canyon" pretends to be dead after being shot in the back by a man who had snuck into his digging path to steal the gold. Once the skunk jumps into the hole to collect, the Prospector attacks him, dazing him with dirt, then steals his gun and kills him.
    • Mr. Arthur of "The Gal" pulls a similar trick when a Native American wallops him in the head from horseback, drawing the attacker to dismount and lean over his body, at which point he swings his arm up and shoots him in the head. Unfortunately, Alice is fooled as well, leading her to follow Arthur's earlier direction to kill herself before the Indians can come for her and do all manner of unspeakable things to her.
  • Fingore: Buster Scruggs shoots off each of the fingers on Çurly/Surly Joe's brother's hand, starting with his trigger finger.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Buster Scruggs gets into an argument about refusing to play the Dead Man's Hand. He dies a few minutes later.
    • The sound of rope tightening and swinging are heard as the short "Near Algodones" is being introduced. Hanging by rope is a major element in the story.
    • In "The Gal Who Got Rattled," the landlord repeatedly denies that a recent tenant's cough was contagious. A scene later, Gilbert starts to cough, and he dies in the scene after that.
  • For Want of a Nail: When Billy Knapp tries to put down Gilbert's dog President Pierce, he manages to get away and survive. The dog's reappearance near the end of the segment indirectly leads to the protagonist's death.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: You can pause the screen to read the first and final pages of each story, which sometimes provides slightly more information than apparent on screen. Sometimes, such as "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," the written ending is completely different than the one you just watched. The text apparently comes from the original short stories that were each chapter's inspiration rather than a text description of what happens in the chapter.
  • Graceful Loser: The title character after being shot.
    Buster Scruggs: I shoulda seen this comin'. Cain't be top dog forever.
  • Grave Humor: In one of the epilogues, freeze-framing the video gives the following partial epitaph for Buster Scruggs:
    We give him to you as he gave you so many. We give him to you, Lord, and humbly ask that you never give him back.
  • Greed: The Prospector in "All Gold Valley." He's looking for gold, happily despoils the valley to find it... and he throws away nuggets in his quest to find the elusive "pocket" of gold, in a careless and wasteful manner. However, it is subverted in one subtle but key aspect; when given the chance to plunder a bird's entire nest of eggs, he takes pity on the mother and takes only what he needs to feed himself. It appears that this little bit of grace is enough to absolve him in the eyes of karma, as he is one of the few characters in the movie who lives to profit from his adventures.
  • The Gunslinger: While behaving like a heroic singing cowboy, Buster Scruggs is really just an outlaw gunslinger who will cheerfully mow down adversaries.
  • Hammerspace: Buster Scruggs produces a hand mirror from nowhere on two occasions. It disappears whenever he's not using it.
  • Hard Work Hardly Works: In "All Gold Canyon", it's revealed that a man has been following the Prospector, letting him do all the hard work in finding the gold so that he can kill him and steal it once it's found. Subverted; the Prospector isn't seriously wounded when the man shoots him, plays possum, and gets the drop on the man, killing him.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Done intentionally, as one of Buster Scruggs' many nicknames is "the West Texas Tit" (as in the bird, on account of its mellifluous voice).
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Buster asks the brother of Çurly/Surly Joe "Do you want a count?" before they start their duel, and he answers in the negative, prompting Buster to immediately draw and shoot him. Just minutes later, the Kid does the exact same thing to Buster.
  • Homage:
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Realistically downplayed in "All Gold Canyon". When Tom Waits's prospector character sings to himself, he sounds merely unskilled and out-of-practice, not exaggeratedly obnoxious or comically awful.
  • Hope Spot: The Cowboy in "Near Algodones" gets two: after he's sentenced to hang, he's given a Villainous Rescue by a Comanche attack... but the Comanches just leave him to die. Then he's rescued by a cattle herder... only to be arrested and sentenced to hang for rustling the herd.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: In "All Gold Valley," we are treated to shots of incredible natural beauty, animals living in peace, flowers blooming... but something approaches, and the butterflies scatter, the deer flees, and the owl puffs up in alarm... the Something comes into view, an old man who sees none of the beauty of the valley, and only cares about the gold he can dig up. In the end, the valley is serene once more, but marred by the messy mining holes and the dead body.
  • I Call It "Vera": As a Freeze-Frame Bonus, the book text of "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" reveals the name of Buster's gun and states that he's the kind of person who names just about everything around him, even a rock that he's walking by.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: Buster Scruggs claims not to hate his fellow man, even when they do bad things— because he believes doing bad things is human nature, and anyone who believes otherwise is "a fool for expecting better".
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy:
    • The Native Americans in "The Gal Who Got Rattled" don't hit a thing, though they are galloping on horseback while shooting.
    • The Cowboy in "Near Algodones" can't hit anything but the bank teller's cooking pan breastplate.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Buster Scruggs' gunfighting abilities are comically implausible.
  • Improvised Armor: In "Near Algodones", Stephen Root's teller bursts out of the back of the bank covered in an assortment of pots and pans that prove to be bullet-proof.
    Teller: PAN-SHOT! [cackles maniacally]
  • Incurable Cough of Death: In "The Gal Who Got Rattled", Gilbert coughs in an early scene. In the next scene, he's coughing uncontrollably. In the scene after that, he's dead... the caravan-master says he died of cholera, but cholera doesn't affect the lungs. It's likelier he caught something from the doctor at his former boarding-house.
  • Injun Country:
    • "Near Algodones" takes place in it, given the Native American attack that interrupts the lynching.
    • The wagon train in "The Gal Who Got Rattled" travels through it and gets attacked.
  • Intellectual Animal: Gallus Mathematicas, the chicken in "Meal Ticket", can supposedly do basic math.
  • Ironic Echo: Buster's question to the man he dueled, and the latter's answer, before shooting off his fingers and then killing him. It gets reversed when it's asked of him by the Kid, and Buster's answer is the same before he is fatally shot.
    The Kid: Do you need a count?
    Buster: No, sir.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mr. Arthur, the gruff trail hand with No Social Skills featured in "The Gal Who Got Rattled", proves himself to be a brave, caring human being when he single-handedly defends Alice from a group of marauding Native Americans. He's saddened when he fails to save her life, as much for her as for Mr. Knapp, as foreshadowed in the opening illustration for the chapter.
  • Just a Flesh Wound: The Prospector gets shot in the back, but it goes clean through and "didn't hit anything important." This allows him to fight his attacker, mine the rest of the gold pocket, and start the trek back to civilization.
  • Karma Houdini: The Impresario gets away with cold-blooded murder. Of course, he'll probably pay for it later when he realises he was scammed and chickens can't do mathematics...
  • Karmic Jackpot: When he's hungry and looking for a meal, the Prospector takes only a single egg from a nest, after seeing the mother owl watching from a neighboring tree. Later, he miraculously survives a gunshot wound unharmed, kills his assailant, and is able to claim his bounty. He's the only protagonist of any of the segments who unambiguously ends the film better than when he began.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • In "Meal Ticket," the first indication that the Impresario isn't a great guy is when he impatiently prods food at the Artist before the Artist can even swallow his last mouthful.
    • In "The Gal Who Got Rattled," Gilbert gives his sister's charm and appearance some very faint praise that borders on a Stealth Insult.
  • Killed Offscreen: The Artist in "Meal Ticket".
  • Lack of Empathy: A key characteristic to Buster is that he doesn't really care for other people's pain and suffering. When he guns down the cantina, he leaves one bandit alive who is clearly shot in the lungs, but Buster refuses to finish him off, instead saying he'll leave the animals to kill him. During the penultimate duel in the story, he shoots off every finger and the thumb of his opposing duelist. While his opponent is clearly in great pain and agony, Buster just ignores him and talks to the audience while planning out how he is going to finish him off.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Buster Scruggs is shot by the Kid before he has a chance to ready himself, having done the exact same thing to Çurly/Surly Joe's brother moments beforehand.
  • Light Is Not Good: The title character is dressed in pure white like the morally pure "singing cowboy" heroes of the past, but he's a violent sociopath who won't hesitate to gun people down and emotionally torment them at the slightest provocation. Interestingly, the man who kills him is dressed in all black.
  • Magic Bullets: Averted. Every time a bullet passes through someone, it hits what is directly behind the person. In the first story, daylight even briefly shines through the hole-in-the-man, before he falls and the audience sees the hole-in-the-shutter behind.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: After being shot directly through the forehead, Buster's only reaction is mild confusion, followed by a casual "well, that ain't good."
  • Marriage of Convenience: Billy Knapp's proposal to Alice includes a very honest account of his reasons for doing so, and how it is to both of their advantages, even though they've only known each other since the start of the wagon train. However, there is every indication that they would actually be very well-matched to each other (far better than Alice could have realistically hoped for), and their ability to imagine (as a lower priority than the practicalities) that they might find "comfort" together means Marriage Before Romance is in the cards.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
    • In "All Gold Canyon", the Prospector takes all of the eggs from a bird's nest to eat. When he spots the mother owl watching him, he relents and gives back all but one of the eggs. Later, he's shot in the back, but the bullet miraculously doesn't "hit anything important". It's left ambiguous as to whether the Prospector is spared by karma, the supernatural intervention of the owl herself, or simple luck.
    • With its mysterious and quasi-supernatural overtones, "The Mortal Remains" could just be a normal stagecoach ride, but is implied to be a voyage into the afterlife.
      • The visible book text at the beginning states that the Trapper can't remember planning the trip or getting onto the stagecoach, but he knows that it's where he's "supposed to be."
      • The ambiance is supernaturally foreboding, with green fog and lightning. Fort Morgan is shrouded in eerie purple mist and surrounded by leafless black trees.
      • The Englishman looks a bit like Mephistopheles, with a narrow mustache and Van Dyke beard. He describes himself and the Irishman as "reapers" and "harvesters of souls", saying that he never takes in his quarry alive. With the other passengers' complete attention, he states that his job is to distract their quarry. He adds that as a storyteller, he "lives forever." While staring fixedly at the other passengers, he also says that he likes to watch his quarry as they "negotiate the passage." The Irishman calls him "boss."
      • The Irishman sings a song about a man dying, which the Englishman says he sings on every trip.
      • The coachmen, who the Englishman says never stops as "policy," never reveals his face, wears black, and drives four black horses.
      • The Lady says she's meeting her estranged husband, who has been ill. She also mentions Jacob's Ladder. Later, we see the Englishman and Irishman carry a corpse up a flight of stairs with white light emanating from above.
      • The passengers are all reluctant to exit the stagecoach. After the Trapper and the Lady enter the hotel, the camera lingers on the Frenchman, who hesitates. When he goes into the hotel, the Trapper and the Lady have vanished.
      • In the book page visible at the end, the narrator states that the Trapper (who talks a great deal on the stagecoach) has nothing left to say and prepares for a "long quiet."
      • The format itself may be a reference to the Cóiste Bodhar, or Death Coach, which carries souls to the afterlife, a folk tale common in England and Ireland.
  • Minimalist Cast: While none of the shorts have a large cast, "All Gold Canyon" has only two humans visible on camera, and only one of them has any lines.
  • Mood Whiplash: Buster Scruggs' looks and behavior are cartoonishly goofy and his marksman skills over-the-top, making it all the more jarring when the results of his kills are shockingly violent and horrifying.
  • Motifs:
    • Birds/Feathers. In "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" and "Meal Ticket," a main character has a bird themed-nickname. In "All Gold Canyon", the Prospector pointedly chooses not to rob an owl of all her eggs. "Meal Ticket" prominently features a chicken who does sums. In "Near Algodones" and "The Gal Who Got Rattled", feather-adorned Native Americans attack the protagonists.
    • Water. Buster Scruggs opens the film singing "Cool Water". "Near Algodones" begins with the Cowboy standing next to a well with a sign reading "Bad Water". "Meal Ticket" is implied to end with the Artist being thrown into a river. "All Gold Canyon" takes place beside a river. The final scenes of "The Gal Who Got Rattled" take place after the caravan stops at a river. "Mortal Remains" in its entirety is an allegory for crossing the River Styx into the afterlife.
    • Death. Every vignette has at least one person dying in some way or form to highlight the vicious and harsh nature of the Wild West. The only exception is "Mortal Remains", and even then it involves a corpse tied to the top of the coach and (maybe) three people being taken to the afterlife by the Devil and the Grim Reaper (four if you count the corpse).
  • Motor Mouth: The trapper in "The Mortal Remains", who comments that people tend to find his excessive talking "tedious" right before launching into a long monologue about human nature that his traveling companions gradually grow visibly bored by.
  • The Musical: "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" parodies old Western musicals. "All Gold Canyon", "The Mortal Remains", and "Meal Ticket" also feature singing (of various quality), though they aren't musicals as such.
  • No Fourth Wall: Buster Scruggs enthusiastically discusses his adventures with the camera several times.
  • No Name Given: Many characters are never named. Some are also listed under different descriptions than those given in the book.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The only death in "Meal Ticket" is all the more disturbing for not being shown to us. The Impresario stops by a river, picks up a heavy rock, and drops it into the river to see how deep the water is. After it sinks, he walks back to his carriage, looking at the Artist. When we next see him, the Impresario is alone in the carriage with his chicken.
  • Once More, with Clarity: Each short film begins with a picture and caption of something that happens in the short. It's not until you get to that point in the short that you truly understand the illustration.
  • One-Man Army:
    • In "The Gal Who Got Rattled", Mr. Arthur successfully fends off a small war party of Native Americans by himself, with only the lay of the land (in the form of the help of a field full of prairie dog holes) to help him. It's a downplayed example, since he only kills eight of them and nearly dies in the process.
    • Going by how casual he is about his actions, as well as his reputation, Buster Scruggs is implied to be this, though we only see him kill seven men on-screen.
  • The Owl-Knowing One: The mother owl in "All Gold Canyon" may or may not be some sort of supernatural guardian of the valley's peace, with the power to spare the old prospector's life for not taking all her eggs.
  • The Perils of Being the Best: The Kid who challenges Buster Scruggs does so specifically because Buster has the reputation of being the best singing gunfighter, and the Kid wants that title for himself. The text on the page notes that there is Always Someone Better, and whoever is the best at any particular moment should be aware of this.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • The Prospector realizes that he's stealing eggs from an owl, so he puts all but one back. This might be why he's injured, but not killed, by the bullet to the back.
    • Mr. Knapp offers to help Miss Longabaugh even if she rejects his proposal so as not to exploit her desperation.
  • Pride: Buster Scruggs exhibits this in spades. He even carries around a fancy silver mirror for show-offy trick shots. Looking at his reflection is his last act as a living man, though once he passes, he suddenly subverts it by showing humility, taking his defeat in stride, and admitting that there's always someone better out there waiting to take the spotlight away.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: An outlaw, Buster Scruggs, and Alice Longabaugh each receive one, self-inflicted in the latter's case.
  • Red Baron: Buster Scruggs has many nicknames, but his favorite is "the San Saba Songbird". The Artist is called "Harrison, the Wingless Thrush" on the Impresario's posters.
  • The Savage Indian: The Native Americans in "Near Algodones" and "The Gal Who Got Rattled" are presented as unsympathetic, often faceless aggressors, almost like a tidal wave of death and destruction that attacks for no reason or purpose. This is very much what one would expect from the pulp westerns that the film is inspired by. Historical precedent doesn't excuse uncritical recreations of reductive stereotypes, though, so the film received criticism for its treatment of Native Americans from Indigenous groups. The one exception to the stereotypes is a mentioned-only character, the former lover of the Trapper, who was a Hunkpapa Lakota. They apparently got on well despite her not speaking English and the Trapper not speaking Sioux.
  • Scenery Porn: "All Gold Canyon" is by far the most scenic of the shorts, and treats the viewers to some nice shots of the wildlife and nature untouched by man.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Buster Scruggs lives by this trope, which is all the more noticeable because a) he freely mixes big words and elaborate verbiage with informal grammar and speech patterns and b) he's surrounded by terse and unlettered cowboys and outlaws, who speak in a much more stereotypical style for a western.
    Buster: I'm not a devious man by nature... but when you're unarmed, your tactics might gotta be downright Archimedean.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Many of the stories go out of their way to demonstrate the vicious, pointless moment-to-moment violence of life in the Old West.
    • "Buster Scruggs" parodies the idea of the wandering gunslinger being killed by a young up-and-comer looking to take their reputation for themselves.
    • "Near Algodones" has the nameless bank robber survive a number of life-threatening ordeals only to get executed for a crime he didn't commit.
    • "Meal Ticket" shows how quickly the world loses interest in the supposed classics in favor of the latest novelty, not to mention how easily an artist's patrons will turn on them and the ruthlessness of the world in general.
    • "All Gold Canyon" takes away the Prospector's one moment of victory right after all the blood, sweat, and energy he put in to get there by having him shot by a claimjumper who steals his find, only for the Prospector to survive, kill the claimjumper, and leave the valley with his hard-earned gold in tow.
    • "The Gal Who Got Rattled" dies a senseless death, while an aging trail boss gets to live another day.
    • All of which puts the audience in just the right mindset to assume that "The Mortal Remains" is about characters who are already dead and on their way to the afterlife, though that twist is ultimately left to the audience to infer.
  • Shoot the Dog: In "The Gal Who Got Rattled", when the other homesteaders in the caravan complain of President Pierce's barking, Mr. Knapp offers to literally shoot the dog himself to spare Miss Longabaugh the worry. He fails, and the dog surviving indirectly leads to her demise.
  • Shoot the Rope: In "Near Algodones," a cattle rustler rescues the Cowboy this way. The concept is somewhat subverted, as the first shot scares off the horse, leaving the Cowboy to hang, and it takes several more shots to hit the swinging rope. Simply untying him would have made much more sense.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: "The Gal Who Got Rattled", the longest of the entries. The audience watches Miss Longabough endure one terrible loss after another, but she gradually builds herself up, adapts, and makes new plans for life in Oregon... and then a stupid twist of fate puts her in the wrong place at the wrong time, and she ends killing herself needlessly.
  • Shout-Out: In "All Gold Canyon", the prospector's pack mule is named Lucky and led by a rope.
  • Shown Their Work: "The Gal Who Got Rattled" never explains it, but when Miss Longabaugh states that her brother had fixed political beliefs, Billy Knapp correctly deduces that he's a doughface (a Northern sympathizer of the South) because his dog is named for President Franklin Pierce, a noted doughface.
  • Sickly Green Glow: Throughout the tail end of "The Mortal Remains", the cast and the wagon is cast in a bright green light as night falls and they approach their destination. The colors really add to the ambiguity of whether everyone is going to the afterlife or not, considering the ominous ornate doors that greet them at the fort are the same color.
  • Silence is Golden: There are long stretches of silence in several shorts. In "Meal Ticket", the Impresario and the Artist never speak to each other.
  • Stylistic Suck:
    • The Impresario's drunken rendition of "Weela Weela Walya" in "Meal Ticket" is quite terrible, and as the crowds shrink, the Artist's performance becomes less nuanced and more strident with each repetition. Even in their early performances, the Impresario makes no attempt to conceal himself when providing sound effects.
    • Tom Waits is a singer, songwriter, and musician with decades of experience in his field, which is probably why the Prospector sounds so convincingly bad when he sings. He unintentionally switches keys, can't hold long notes for much time, and his voice cracks frequently, all of which makes sense for a character with a life that's so hard on the body.
  • There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: According to the woman in "The Mortal Remains", they are "Upright and Not Upright." For the Englishman and the Irishman, it's "Dead or Alive."
  • Trailers Always Lie: The trailer makes it look as if the stagecoach ride in "The Mortal Remains" serves as a Framing Device.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer spoils the fact that Buster Scruggs dies at the end of his own story.
  • Understatement: The title character observing "That don't look good," after being shot in the head.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Billy and Alice share a laugh about her "doughface" brother who named his dog "President Pierce", with no further explanation. It takes a pretty detailed knowledge of American history to understand those references.
  • Villain Ball: The claim jumper in "All Gold Canyon" could have gotten away with it if he shot the prospector twice instead of just shooting him once before jumping in the hole with him.
  • Villain in a White Suit: Downplayed. Buster Scruggs wears a snazzy white cowboy outfit, though he tells the cantina barkeep not to let his "white duds" fool him: Buster is known to "violate the statutes of God and man" when the whim strikes him.
  • Villainous Rescue: In "Near Algodones", the Cowboy is rescued from execution at the hands of a posse by the conveniently timed arrival of a Native American raiding party. They don't cut the rope, though, and so he's left to choke for longer. However, he is rescued by a cowboy... who later turns out to be a cattle rustler. And the would-be bank robber ultimately gets hanged for cattle rustling.
  • Visual Pun: The back of the book that frames the whole movie has an illustration of a mule seen from behind. This is only shown to the viewers once they've reached the tail end of the movie.
  • "Wanted!" Poster: Buster Scruggs shows off one of his to the audience, but objects to being labeled a misanthrope on the basis that he doesn't hate his fellow man.
  • Weird West: The setting of "The Mortal Remains". Possibly.
  • We Named the Monkey "Jack": In "The Gal Who Got Rattled", Gilbert has named his dog President Pierce as an apparent tribute to the man.
  • The Wild West: All six stories take place in the American frontier during the Wild West days.
  • Winged Soul Flies Off at Death: After being shot by the Kid, Buster Scruggs' soul grows wings and flies up to heaven playing a harp.
  • What You Are in the Dark:
    • Despite there being no other humans around for miles, the Prospector takes only a single egg from an owl's nest because he knows that to do otherwise would be cruel to the mother.
    • With many treks through the wilderness between towns with only the helpless Artist to judge him, nobody would be the wiser if the Impresario simply abandoned him as dead weight. Eventually, that's exactly what he does— and makes sure he sinks deep in the river just to be sure.
  • Worthy Opponent: The man in black shows a great deal of respect for Buster when he challenges him to a shoot-out, and Buster shows no ill will towards the younger man after he kills him, calmly remarking "can't be top dog forever".
  • You Are Already Dead: Exaggerated for laughs when the title character is shot through the head. He hears the shot, takes a full ten seconds to stare at the gunman, slowly takes his hat off, looks at the entry and exit holes, casually says, "Well, that ain't good," looks at his forehead in a hand mirror to confirm, and then finally drops.
  • Zany Cartoon: Buster Scruggs' story runs on cartoon logic. His shooting skills are implausibly wacky, his echoes harmonize with him as he sings his way through the country, and one of the more memorable gags has Buster pat himself off, leaving a cloud of dust in the shape of his own body hanging in the air as he steps out of it. He's basically a deconstructed Screwball Squirrel sort of character, whose wacky gags result in real blood and an actual body count.


Video Example(s):


Buster Scruggs at Gunpoint

Buster isn't a devious man by nature, but when he's unarmed, his tactics have to be downright Archimedian.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (11 votes)

Example of:

Main / CombatPragmatist

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