The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and lessons in passivity
Movie anthologies present a unique challenge in storytelling. It is generally expected in character driven narratives that a protagonist will face a series of challenges that forces them to learn and change and grow as a person. The story is that of a person changing. Television anthologies (as well as ones in literature and comics) can tell different individual stories in an episodic way. There will be the necessary run time to at least have all the basic story beats required for a protagonist to go on a personal journey. However in a movie anthology there isn’t often enough runtime to go around. Most characters will have to go on a journey in around 20 to 40 minutes with a substantial portion of that runtime already going to establishing the character and their world.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Western anthology. Westerns as a genre are known for slow pacing. And when you’ve already got very little time to establish characters (and their respective worlds) you do have to rely on genre shorthand for genre verisimilitude. The 1962 Western anthology How the West Was Won is 164 minutes long with five stories told within its runtime. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is 133 minutes long and tells six stories within its runtime, albeit with significantly differing runtimes for the individual stories. The former title follows a single family across different periods of the history of the old West and as such its only inconsistencies in style come from differing period aspects. How the West was Won is very much a tonally consistent movie that relies on consistent story telling stylisms even though it has multiple directors. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs switches up genre affectations and tone with every story: there’s a musical piece, a gunslinger inspired piece, one about a road show, an existentialist conversational piece with creeping horror and so on. How the West was Won is a film about people changing as the old west changes around them. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is doing so many different things (with more stories in a shorter run time) that it very deliberately decides to forgo the idea of characters changing and learning and growing. In fact character passivity is very much the point.
The old West was a place of constant change and constant danger. The Western as cinema has always been a genre defined by the costs of survival. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a series of short stories about the costs of being passive in a series of environments that require constant personal evolution. If the movie doesn’t have time to show personal growth, it’ll be a movie about the deadliness of not growing. This can be seen as a consistent theme within each story and so I will talk about each in turn. Each story exists in a different recognisable Western subgenre and plays with the idea of passivity in a different way relating to said subgenre. The pitfalls of passivity greatly differ in a gunslinger narrative to one about the Oregon Trail.
However, it must also be said that these are all different stories playing with different ideas. I am not arguing that every story is primarily a different lesson about passivity, but that it is a consistent element in each. Passivity is only one of the things The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is discussing; it’s just the one thing I’ve decided to write about here.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The first story in the movie is also the titular story of the film, obviously. We’re immediately introduced to the eponymous Buster Scruggs. He’s seems to be a hokey dim-witted simpleton. He dresses in a comically shiny white suit. He exists in a gunslinger’s world and lifestyle and thus stands out visually and textually. This story pushes his realism shattering persona as far as it can go with him even singing a few musical numbers. The joke of the piece is that he’s also an incredibly deadly and brutal gunslinger. He just goes about it in the most slapstick manner possible. Everyone he faces off against underestimates him and thus dies in the most graphically dark comic way. The story settles in a repeating pattern of a stereotypical Western tough guy picks a fight and then loses to this Bugs Bunny Clint Eastwood. So whilst Buster Scruggs is depicted as a subversion of the macho gunslinger movie Western archetype, he still functions exactly like a conventional one in the story.
Then a young gunslinger turns up and Buster Scruggs presumes it’ll go the same way. But the kid is faster on the draw and Scruggs is gunned down. Buster Scruggs is a passive protagonist. He’s already on top of his world and thus sees no need to change the way he goes about things. When he faces off against someone faster on the draw it is already too late for him to learn something by the very nature of the conflict. Buster Scruggs’s soul departs his body as a ghost and performs another amusing musical number as he heads up into the clouds. However he is still ultimately a passive character who has now entered the most passive state a person can be in.
A gunslinger type, played by James Franco, heads into a bank that is empty apart from the teller. The entire scene seems off and weird. Franco’s character clocks that this isn’t the usual bank or bank teller. He is planning to rob the place anyway. He strikes up a conversation with the teller beforehand and the teller informs him of multiple times he’s easily foiled robbery attempts. In spite of his observations of the place being unsettling and a bank teller unfazed by robbers, Franco’s character decides to pull his gun and have a go anyway.
Franco’s character notices everything he needs to be aware of so that he might choose to rethink his approach to a situation made of unknowns. He however decides to just pull a gun and try and wing it because he assumes he will win. This is the very definition of a passive protagonist. He sees possible new challenges on the horizon and decides they don’t exist.
The teller ducks down, fires a few shotguns under the desk at Franco’s character before ducking out the back. Franco does some cool looking climbing and jumping to go after the man, but finds himself alone outside. The teller then charges out of the bank wearing armour fashioned from pots and pans. Franco shoots the man over and over to no effect. He just keeps hitting the pans. Franco’s character is so passive he literally just stands on the same spot and tries to shoot the teller over and over again in the same place. Again, a new unexpected challenge he refuses to recognise for what it is. The teller knocks Franco out.
He awakens on a horse with a noose around his neck. There’s a posse of lawmen before him. Despite looking like every swaggering gunslinger Western anti-hero ever, Franco’s character continues to do nothing. He just waits to be hanged. Eventually a war party of Native Americans turns up and slaughters the posse before leaving. Franco is alone on the horse with his head in a noose and he still just sits there. He doesn’t try to think laterally about a way to escape. He is entirely passive. Eventually a rancher passes by and Franco screams out for help. The rancher rescues him and Franco just decides to follow this guy. He’s no longer even actively making decisions for himself. We then slam-cut into the reveal that the rancher is actually a rustler and through his passive association with the man, Franco now has his head back in a noose. He cracks a few jokes in that cool Western anti-hero way, but he still doesn’t do anything, so he’s then hanged and the story ends.
Once again constant passivity leads to the ultimate form of passivity.
Westerns are often about individuals conquering an “untamed land” and creating a successful enterprise woven into the fabric of American mythology. In other words, Westerns are often about capitalism and the “American dream”. Meal Ticket concerns itself with the story of Impresario (Liam Neeson) and Harrison (Harry Melling). Impresario runs a travelling show that is entirely made up of Harrison reciting famous speeches from poetry, plays and history. Harrison’s performances are entirely captivating.
We see the show has a varied level of success as the duo travel from frontier town to frontier town. Sometimes there is a huge crowd and sometimes three or four people. So whilst Impresario can travel anywhere he wants in his wagon his situation is entirely dependent on an audience. Much like with capitalism, the dream is that you can go anywhere and do what you want (and be “free”) as long as there just happens to be people who want to buy what you’re selling. So Impresario is passive in terms of his ability to control the outcomes of his and Harrison’s labour. This is when I feel I must mention that Harrison has neither arms nor legs. He cannot feed himself or even move himself. His disabilities render him passive to the point of having no agency.
In effect Impresario is a glorified middle man with no talents of his own who goes around selling the talents of Harrison, who cannot do this for himself. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is a commentary on the way that the rich profit from the labours of the poor simply because they own the outcomes of said labour. Impresario is never seen lacking for money even in the wake of smaller shows. However the threat of poverty is at least implied to be on the horizon for him. Eventually after a particularly poor turnout for a show he sees a much larger turn out for a chicken that appears to solve sums upon demand. People quite literally shout out sums and then the chicken taps the answer on a board of sorts. So Impresario buys the chicken and then the story implies that he dumps Harrison in a river.
I don’t think the metaphor here is complex or hard to see. Harrison cannot move himself and never speaks outside of his performances. Impresario effectively owns him. Once Impresario finds something that can get him bigger profits that requires less to feed (literally chicken feed) he throws Harrison away. Harrison has talent, but no means with which to generate money from that talent by himself; a metaphorical working class. Impresario may have control of Harrison and the chicken, but he cannot control how profitable they’ll be. With likely worse times on the horizon Impresario chooses to cut costs to maximise profits. So whilst Impresario is technically not an entirely passive protagonist as he makes a clear choice, he is still passive in terms of his well being completely determined by luck.
So if Westerns are often concerned with the American dream, it seems that Meal Ticket thinks that dream can only exist from the combination of taking advantage of the labour of others, the cruellest sorts of pragmatic business decisions and the blind hope that people will want what you’re selling. There is no lesson for the passive Harrison to learn as the ownership of agency is out of his hands, so to speak.
All Gold Canyon
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the very next story in the film is one of a lone gold prospector. It is also the story that treats the idea of being passive in an ironic way. The Prospector (Tom Waits) turns up in a new unspoiled area of the American wilderness. He begins to methodically search for gold in the river. He uses sound methodology to find the source of the gold. He survives by eating birds. He does all of this quite calmly and he clearly has trained experience. He then digs a hole and finds generous helpings of gold before a robber turns up behind him with a pistol cleanly aimed at his back.
The Prospector can do nothing as the robber has him dead to rights. He can only be passive and wait for death. So the robber shoots The Prospector and he appears to fall down dead. The robber enters the hole and after what seems like an age The Prospector suddenly leaps into action. He was only playing possum and is still very much alive. The Prospector manages to get the upper hand and kill the robber. He then heads to the river and cleans his wound and discovers it shouldn’t be fatal. He then quite happily walks off with his find that will presumably make him very wealthy.
The irony of this story is that passivity is what allows The Prospector to survive. By pretending to be dead he gains the upper hand. His ability to find gold is based in patient methodology, one that often involves waiting for results. Panning for gold is not famously pro-active as activities go. All Gold Canyon is using the idea of a passive protagonist in a different way to the other stories: The Prospector doesn’t need to learn any lessons. He knows everything he needs to know. If The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as a whole, to a degree, is a series of lessons in passivity, then the lesson here is about when to be passive and when to be active. Playing possum before launching yourself into sudden brutal violence is the most effective strategy of survival and prosperity in the old west.
This is also where another idea the movie plays with comes into sharper focus: age. The Prospector is one of the older characters seen in the movie. The robber is a young man who underestimates the older man and pays for it. The Prospector is a man with thoroughly developed skills from what one assumes is a lifetime of experiences. Buster Scruggs is killed by a younger man in his story because the only thing that separates his approach from the young man that kills him is speed. Buster Scruggs is much older than the man that kills him, but is no more mature or learned. Franco’s gunslinger seems to only know how to shoot people and thus is defeated by an unassuming older bank teller who doesn’t care about looking cool and thus just improvises armour from pots and pans. Whilst Harrison in Meal Ticket has no agency that any lesson can improve upon, it is still noteworthy he is a young man under the control of an older man. Impresario is much like The Prospector: they know how this world works and what has to be done to survive it.
The Gal Who Got Rattled
The fifth story in the movie is pointedly about the worldly knowledge of older folk versus the naivety of the young. Our protagonist is Alice Longabaugh, a young woman who has clearly been shaped by the expectations of young women in the age. Her passivity is that of a quiet woman waiting to be told what to do by a man. At first the man she obeys is her brother, but he dies as they begin their travelling towards Oregon in a wagon train.
Their life in Oregon was picked and designed entirely by the brother. Alice’s driver Matt then begins to clearly take advantage of her naivety and claim the brother promised him a disproportionate sum of money for his services. She does nothing herself to rectify this. Her character can be epitomised by her behaviour in dealing with her brother’s dog she’s left in charge of. It constantly barks upsetting the other passengers and she wants to prevent this, but is at a total loss at how to do it. Here is a creature whose entire existence is under her control and she does nothing.
Alice’s passivity is very much defined by her being what the men of the era would consider to be a model woman. Her passivity is very much that of an ideal doting wife who doesn’t speak unless spoken to. As such her solutions to her problems is to seek how the help of men: Billy and Mr Arthur in particular. She develops a romantic bond with Billy and they are to be married. However before this can happen Alice becomes separated by the wagon train when the dog starts barking at some prairie dogs. Alice doesn’t recognise the obvious danger in going off alone.
Mr Arthur eventually finds Alice, but then they are set upon by a war party of Native Americans. Alice is terrified and Mr Arthur is calm and collected. He prepares a defensible spot and figures out the tactics of his enemies and explains all of this to Alice. Mr Arthur is also not a young man and thus is speaking from a lifetime of lived experiences. After he fends off the first wave Mr Arthur gives Alice a pistol with two bullets, one for him and one for her, to prevent being taken alive. Eventually Mr Arthur scares off the attackers, except he is then knocked down by one remaining Native American. Mr Arthur survives the blow and kills the assailant after playing possum for a moment. When Mr Arthur returns to Alice he finds that she has killed herself after believing him truly dead.
Alice’s passivity is one of refusing to move outside of the framework life expected her to exist within. She thinks she’s a young woman who’ll be married one day. It isn’t her job to make decisions and enact violence, that’s the job of the men. As such she never tries to learn the world outside the framework she’s chosen to remain within. A man says to kill herself if they lose the fight and thus by not learning how violence operates in this world (such as playing possum and bushwacking and so on) she doesn’t wait to see if the fight is actually lost, she just kills herself. The only time she stops being passive and makes a choice, is to choose to kill herself and thus become the ultimate form of passivity.
This idea of a protagonist believing they exist in a framework with rules that actually determine the course of the world is a common thread through all the stories. Buster Scruggs exists entirely with the framework of a cinematic gunslinger who prefers to engage in duels. Thus when faced with a superior duellist he is unable to defeat him because he tries to beat him in a duel. Franco’s character things he’s a cool swaggering bank robber, but ultimately he loses to a man wearing pots and pans because his framework of merciless shooting doesn’t account for pots and pans or running away. Impresario and The Prospector live within the harshest end of the capitalistic framework, but they’re both aware of that. They don’t expect the world to obey any rules and thus they approach the world will all the pragmatism and brutally they know it will inevitably throw their way. Mr Arthur is similar to The Prospector and Impresario in that way.
The Mortal Remains
This is another story about people trapped within their own personally established frameworks for how they approach the world. Clearly from the title it is also concerned with death and mortality. The surface story is very much one of passivity contrasted with movement. Five people are in a coach on their way to a Fort. There is an Englishman, a Frenchman, an Irishman, an American Lady and an American trapper. Whilst the coach is depicted as moving swiftly through the night, the actual story is just about five people just having a conversation. They are obviously passive as the coach will take them where it takes them and the coach doesn’t stop for anybody, not until it arrives at journey’s end.
Each character is a stand in for some sort of rigidly defined philosophical perspective on life and people. Ultimately through their efforts none of the characters are really able to ever understand each other or communicate exactly what they want to say. If there is any philosophy that defines making choices as your defining trait it is existentialism and The Mortal Remains feels very much like a loud declaration of its being homage to Sartre’s No Exit. The directing and acting of the piece very much feels like a horror movie. All of the characters are past their physical prime and it is clear they are at least symbolically heading towards some sort of death. When they arrive at the Fort it is like a ghost town and none of the characters want to get out of the coach first. It’s also revealed the Irishman was transporting a dead body on top of the coach. We never see the face of the coach driver and he’s dressed in flowing dark clothing. He could be Death himself as much as he could be the boatman over the River Styx. The segment is shot, lit, scored and edited to highlight surrealism. At the Fort the buildings are clearly two-dimensional. There is no point coming at this story as though it is a literal depiction of a series of events, it is an analogy about the approach of death in later life.
In life we are all in an uncontrollable coach heading towards death, trapped with other people that we don’t often understand and aren’t able to make understand us. The Trapper talks at length about his now ended relationship with a Native woman. He describes in detail that whilst they had a sexual relationship neither of them spoke the same language and would just talk past each other in their own respective languages. His story comes to a sudden stop when it seems like he’s about to explain what he learned from it. But he didn’t learn a thing; he’s at a total loss and doesn’t realise the simple communication issue that ultimately led to the woman leaving him.
The Lady is a devout Christian who says in the world there are two types of people: sinners and the upright. She has been separated by distance from her husband for quite some time and cannot bring herself to imagine him cheating on her even when the Frenchman explains to her the likelihood of this happening. Her marriage is more than likely broken and she hasn’t realised because her binary approach to morality doesn’t allow for the possibility of her husband sleeping around.
The Frenchman tries to act in a detached manner. He says condescending things to the other passengers laying out their moral contradictions and failings. He’s clearly judging them, but when they challenge him he claims they just misunderstand him. Ironically in his attempt to communicate to them what he’s decided they need to hear, he reveals his judgemental self to them whilst denying his own nature to their faces. He talks like a French existentialist philosopher, but misses the key lessons of not just identifying problem, but actually acting to overcome them. He talks as though he understands the world as it exists, but ultimately he’s as passive in that coach as the rest of them. He tries to place himself above others through debate, but ultimately the debate serves no purpose but to make him feel better about himself. Ironically this leads to him being the only passenger that is understood by those around him as a judgemental arse and he can’t recognise this fact. For all his judgements about the other passengers, when the coach reaches its destination he is the most scared and thus the last to exit the coach. He knows the world requires overcoming passivity and not letting yourself be defined by rigid rules within a framework, yet he’s too scared to act.
Obviously given the nature of the segment being a surreal analogous story about five people heading towards unavoidable death, there’s not really anything the characters can do to change their fate. However the fact they could still try and don’t is perhaps the point. Like in real life itself we will all ultimately die one day and there is nothing we can do about that. But we can still try to survive as long as possible in the mean time. But why try? Sartre might say that choosing to act those choices and actions give our lives meaning. The Mortal Remains seems to agree as its protagonists do nothing as they hurtle towards death, choosing only to define themselves by abstract moralities that don’t affect the world and actually prevent them from understanding other people. Passivity is also loneliness.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs says things that can only be said in a Western. It’s a genre concerned with survival of the fittest and the foundation of America and the “American dream”. Survival is determined by knowing when to be passive and when to act, but also how to do these things based on survived experiences in your past. If you fail to learn anything through your life the only thing that separates you from the young is their speed and strength you cannot match. Often you will simply not be able to learn anything and will die with no ability to change that. Alice was never made aware there were things to learn beyond what she was taught and Harrison cannot navigate the capitalist ladder because he is literally immobile. Those who survive this world are those that come at it as it exists, not as they like to imagine it works. Capitalism is treated like the world itself, without rules, ultimately unknowable and without objective values. In the Wild West you will die if you are passive, unless passivity is a deliberate choice to play a part that furthers your agenda. Passivity is only effective when it’s part of an action.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t need to show any characters on a journey of self-discovering and the following fight to change. The film shows us the sort of people that are able to survive whilst simultaneously depicting those who aren’t able. By the time you’ve had a chance to learn a lesson you’re already dead. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is deliberately using heightened Western tropes because it cannot be realistic. In real life often if you approach life on its own terms you will often still lose. You can learn all the lessons you needed to in the old west and still just catch a stray bullet or get a disease and so on. This film chooses to not depict anything realistic in that way as to make its points about passivity clear. One way is certain death and the other means survival, at least for now. Maybe The Prospector and Impresario do both die sometime after their stories stopped being seen by the audience. We never see them win, just keep surviving.
I think all of this is true of life as well. The Western as a genre takes facts of life and pushes them to the extreme: inaction is death and survival is often at the cost of moral decency. I think that makes The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sound more cynical than it is. The film at least hints that when people push past individualist there is more certainty. When Alice fails to grow as a character only she dies, the rest of the wagon train isn’t imperilled. To then end the film on a segment concerned with a group of people painfully unable to communicate with each other also feels intentional. The Western is a genre about the individual trying to conquer a savage world and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs knows whatever people learn by themselves is only ever enough to just keep surviving, and nothing more. The film doesn’t concern itself with why someone would want to keep living in the face of certain death, because it’s set in a world where the people living there haven’t built enough of a civilisation to ask why we survive.