Episode 552: Death Actually Is All Around Us

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we tackle “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”

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Matthew Belinkie, Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather find the intellectual, aesthetic, thematic, and music through-lines in the Coen Brother’s Academy Award-nominated netflix anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

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7 Comments on “Episode 552: Death Actually Is All Around Us”

  1. clayschuldt #

    I too felt we were suppose to sympathize with the Prospector. Maybe I just naive, but he seemed to respect nature and was trying to live with the environment. He was seeking gold, but he wasn’t greedy about it. He doesn’t take all the eggs and he old kills to survive. After he leaves, the animals are able to return to the valley. Though he removed the gold, he replaced with the body of the thief. There does seem to be a form of balance to his action. Its fair.


    • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

      Compare the Prospector to the Once-ler, the environment-crushing narrator of The Lorax. First of all, that guy completely denudes the landscape, a far cry from the series of hand-dug holes the Prospector leaves. But more importantly, the Once-ler is a creature of civilization: he wears suits, he lives in a fancy house, he has an army of machines. The Prospector seems like he’s never slept under a roof.

      Now of course, there’s DEFINITELY a feeling of human being encroaching on a sacred place (there’s the deer that departs and then returns at the end). But the more I think about it, the more I think the scene with the owl is key. The guy doesn’t take anything that belongs to anyone else. He earns that gold fair and square and he doesn’t hurt anybody to get it. I guess I don’t see the holes in the ground as being that much of a desecration, and maybe the fact that he fills the biggest hole up again is another sign that this guy is respecting the balance of things.


  2. Adrian #

    Spoilers below

    Anybody else think Liam Neeson screwed himself over? It’s hard to know for sure due to the magical realist nature of the film, but in real life there have been a lot of learned pigs and arithmetical horses, but they are carnival-style tricks. The animal itself is incidental except for a bit of Pavlovian training–and we don’t know that the guys running the chicken show explained to Liam Neeson how to operate the con. That story reminded me of a collapsed or slant-viewed Jack and the Beanstock. The Reciter is the harp that plays itself, and Liam Neeson drops him in the river (killing the golden goose) and trades him for beans (blows his nest egg on what is probably a more or less ordinary chicken).

    The Western as a genre is inescapably “American,” and I couldn’t help thinking of the gun culture here in the USA in the way the Zoe Kazan story ended. Like, sure the wagon leader is doing everything he can to save her, he’s a supernaturally good shot, and he really does amazingly well. That still doesn’t change the fact that she shoots herself *because he specifically told her to*. He knows exactly what to do in his own world that involves heroic gunplay, but it still ends tragically because he doesn’t know how to relate to a different kind of person, someone more easily rattled, in a helpful way.

    I also got a very Trumpian feeling from Buster Scruggs–a self promoting peddler of bullshit who has grand nicknames for himself, though the people he meets have heard of more derisive ones. Trump’s “I could shoot a man on 5th avenue and not lose any votes” becomes “I can kill a man with his own gun in a room full of people, and even the folks who got splattered with his blood will sing along when I start singing.”


    • clayschuldt #

      I actually did think the chicken would end up being useless because he never learned the trick. I figured the seller of the chicken did it because he knew he could just get another chicken to do it. I suspect the Coen Brothers decided against that last twist because it was not necessary, or karmic revenge was not their goal.


    • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

      We didn’t have time on the podcast, but I wonder whether Meal Ticket isn’t a cynical (perhaps self-mocking) allegory about the Coens themselves. I always get suspicious whenever artists tell stories about artists. In that reading, the Coens feel like the Wingless Thrush, capable of making beautiful art with limited tools, but also helpless and dependent on the producer/money man. Despite all they do for the studio, the producers of the world would dump them in a minute if a more popular entertainer comes along.

      Now working against this reading is the fact that the Coens have seemingly been working fairly consistently and making the films they want to make. They aren’t, say, Terry Gilliam. That being said, we have no idea how many frustrating pitch meetings they’ve sat through, trying to get projects greenlit while everyone chases after the license for Candyland. I’ve heard stories that even directors that we consider to be a-list often have to hustle for years to get a project off the ground.

      So I don’t know! Certainly many many people who consider themselves serious artists feel like the Thrush on their more self-pitying days, but whether the Coens see themselves in the character is another question.


      • clayschuldt #

        I think this is is a fair reading. After all, this film was released to Netflix two years after their last theatrical release film, “Hail, Caesar” did poorly at box office. I am guessing they chose the Netflix method because the regular studio were no willing to work with them.
        The Thursh’s performance is a collection of short pieces rather than one long production, which is what the Coen’s did this time.
        Dropping him in a cold river could be a reference to dropping “Hail, Caesar” into the cold month of Feb. which is not typically associated with award season.


  3. John C Member #

    Pete brings up an important point about “realism” in genre fiction, where somehow the most absurd genre conventions are always “real,” but the idea that people don’t literally eviscerate each other at every opportunity is somehow beyond all comprehension. My favorite example has always been superhero stories, where masks (making impersonation easy), secret bases, and what amount to departmental meetings are all normal, but the idea that someone might balk at murder is weird.

    The quick discussion about the “mini-genres” (for lack of a better term) in Scruggs also reminds me that I’ve often thought that what we call a genre is more often a backdrop than anything relating to the story being told. It’s almost odd that most “genre fiction” could plausibly be any genre, from a comedy of manners to a mystery to a Ruritanian romance, within its chosen setting, but I don’t know how useful that is.

    I do kind of hope that we start seeing more genre-spanning anthologies, though. It feels like that’d make for an interesting kind of TV series, with characters crossing paths occasionally, instead of everybody needing to appear in every episode. That probably has smart-person business reasons to not be viable, though.


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