‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ – A Timely Exploration of Human Dignity and the Futility of Violence

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 –By Sam Hendrian–

This article contains Spoilers

“We all have it coming, kid.” These legendary words from Clint Eastwood’s classic film Unforgiven also form the thematic core of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a feature-length anthology of Western short films from directors Joel and Ethan Coen. Recently released to Netflix, it masterfully employs both dark humor and haunting imagery to convey a timely message about the priceless dignity of the human person and the ultimate futility of violence.

The first short film tells the story of Buster Scruggs, an eccentric, singing outlaw with a goofy smile and subtle leanings towards sadism. He kills a man in a saloon and then breaks into an extravagant musical number about it, ignoring the heartbroken cries of the deceased man’s brother. It is a marvelous scene of juxtaposition, both boisterously funny and quietly unnerving. Just a few minutes later, Buster meets his demise at the hands of another gunslinger. His post-killing ecstasy is short-lived.

This quirky tale drives home the Christian value of living a virtuous life, for we know not the day nor the hour that we will die. Buster Scruggs shows little regard for other human lives, and in the end, he reaps what he sows. His fate reminds us all to live each day as if it were our last.

The fable of Buster Scruggs is concretely echoed in the next chapter of the anthology, during which a bank-robbing outlaw is hanged for his crimes… twice. The first time is at the hands of some passing riders who are ultimately murdered by Native Americans, and the second time is under the jurisdiction of the county government. ‘Tis a mighty hard thing to escape death, especially when one is a dealer of it; such is this chapter’s simple but powerful statement.

The third short film is perhaps the anthology’s most unsettling. It tells the story of a traveling showman whose one act is exploiting “Harrison the Wingless Thrush,” a limbless young man with a knack for speech-giving. At first, it is possible to detect a melancholic compassion/pity in the showman’s eyes as he travels around with Harrison. Perhaps he even loves him like a son. However, we all-too-quickly learn that Harrison means nothing more to the showman than a source of profit.

When the showman notices that a traveling show about a sensational chicken (yes, a chicken) is doing better than his act, he buys the profit-gleaning animal and gives up on making any more money off the “Limbless Thrush.” Intoxicated by hope in fresh success, he begins to feel that he is unnecessarily burdened by his former source of profit. After dropping a heavy rock into a nearby river and seeing that the water is deep, he walks over to the limbless young man and smiles with faux kindness, planning to drown him.

Heartbreaking and haunting, the events of this tragic story represent how countless human beings are treated merely as disposable objects by evil opportunists in the world. From abortion to human trafficking to the worst of the Hollywood studio system, priceless children of God have too often been equated to dollar signs. The Coen Brothers are clearly stating that this blatant disregard for human dignity must end.

The fourth short film is not quite as disturbing, but it is equally compelling in its depiction of Man’s fallen nature. It tells the tale of a lone prospector who thinks he is far away from the interference of any other man as he pines for gold in the vast wilderness. His assumption seems to be blissfully true until he is shot in the back after discovering some gold in the ground. To the attacker’s surprise, the determined prospector survives the bullet and returns the favor, leaving his competition dead in the ground.

While the prospector triumphantly leaves the desolate wilderness with the gold in his possession, he has lost a lot of blood, and we remember that death will eventually come for him too, perhaps in the near future. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” Both the prospector and his attacker seem to regard material gain as the only real treasure in life, so the joy in their hearts can only be fleeting.

The penultimate chapter of the anthology starts out as a quiet human interest story and ends (literally) with a bang. Its central protagonists, Alice Longabaugh and Billy Knapp, are two ordinary people who have been traveling for most of their lives and long to settle down. Just when it seems that this mutual dream of theirs is close to coming true, Alice is spotted by violent Comanche warriors on the open plains. Billy’s best friend, Mr. Arthur, is with her at the time, and he instructs her to kill herself if he is struck down by the warriors, whom he hopes to fend off with his rifle. He knows that they will rape and torture her otherwise, and he wishes for her to avoid this fate.

Wanting to live but also fearing something more painful than a quick death, Alice prepares to do what she is told when she sees that Mr. Arthur has been struck down. In a heart-wrenching twist, Mr. Arthur is shown to still be alive and ready to bring her to safety… but she has already put a bullet through her head. Alice was a devout Christian, and she knew deep down that taking her own life was never truly justifiable, but fear overcame her. Her tragic demise reminds us that the authority over life and death should be left to God and God alone.

In the final segment of the anthology, a group of mismatched travelers chat and argue on a nighttime carriage ride to a hotel. They all come from different backgrounds, some seedy and some upright, but they are all united by their raw humanity. Upon arriving at the hotel, skillfully eerie cinematography implies that these travelers are actually all dead and on their way to the afterlife, whatever that might be.

While no one kills each other in this segment, the anthology’s unifying theme of violence’s futility is still subtly present. When people try to take life and death into their own hands by choosing to act on violent impulses, they are ignorant of the hard fact that no human can truly be the master of either thing. From the thoroughly depraved to the glowingly righteous, we are all going to die, which ultimately makes us more alike than we are different.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not for everyone’s tastes, but it undeniably offers a timely examination of what happens to people when they disregard human dignity and foolishly believe that their mortal capabilities can somehow transcend those of death. While this may make the anthology sound rather depressing, it still has its moments of entertaining suspense and humor, and its unsettling images are spiritually challenging rather than pointlessly disturbing. In a world where a violent disregard for life is rampant, the Coen Brothers remind us that it is our sacred duty to diligently fight for the immeasurable value of each human person.

 

About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.