The Coens for Lent – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The last of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]

On Holy Saturday, we sit with death. We remember the day that Jesus spends in the grave, “descended into hell” as the creeds say. Meanwhile, his followers on earth were scattered, wondering if any of it had been worth it.

g The brothers are clearly at their haunted and haunting.

Death comes for us all, even for Jesus. In Scruggs, the Coens demonstrate that no matter what genre, no matter what character archetype, no matter what scenario, death is ever-present.

Death comes for Buster Scruggs, the fastest gun in the West… well, not anymore. There will always be a newer, faster gun to make us obselete.

Death comes for the young cowboy who robs the bank, even though he skirts it once or twice. Death keeps catching up, and wins the day despite his bravado.

Death comes for the no-armed, no-legged orator, whose stories become less and less interesting to townsfolk. When his caretaker/business partner sees a more lucrative opportunity, even one as foolish as a counting chicken, he quickly learns that his very life is only worth as much as his usefulness.

The gold digger is really our only surviving lead protagonist in the film, though its telling that he is by far the oldest and most feeble. He will not go down so easily, though death still hangs over him like the trees over the gold’s canyon.

Death comes for Miss Longabaugh in probably the most tragic story the Coens have ever told. There are a million ways to die on the Oregon Trail. We can try as we want to build a life, make plans, find love and connection, and death can still take us needlessly and suddenly.

And finally, depending on how you interpret the final vignette, death comes or has already come for the passengers of the stagecoach. They reason and bicker about the meaning of life, religion, and love, and then walk at varying paces and comforts towards finality.

The film is discomforting, off-putting, and distinct. In that way, like the Saturday before Easter, it is “holy” in a most peculiar way – it is “set apart,” distinct from all other Saturdays. “Holy” doesn’t mean “happy,” or even “good,” though many things that are holy are also good. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Holy Saturday remain distinct, disquieting events that force us to reconcile with death in all its darkness, randomness, and despair. Only then can we begin to understand the meaning of Resurrection.

[See all entries in “The Coens for Lent” series]

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