The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a twisty Coen brothers masterpiece of tall tales and fables and, by its very nature, rather ambiguous. Several key questions are left unanswered. Below are 14 random thoughts about the film that, like the six tales, don’t really fall into any one specific category. Some are, as promised in the headline, fact-based Things You Might Have Missed. Some are more in the realm of evidence-based speculation (Things That Probably Mean Something). And a few are a rather far-out fan theories (Here’s What Some Think That Meant). And so, in roughly chronological order (Spoilers):
1. In Frenchman’s Gulch, the poker hand that Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) refuses to play is Aces and Eights — which is a pretty decent poker hand, so some viewers well-versed in poker were confused by his outright refusal. The reason he reacts so negatively is, perhaps, superstition. Aces and Eights is the “Dead Man’s Hand,” and is rumored to be the same hand gunman Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was killed.
2. When watching the film the first time, Scruggs kicking the board on the poker table to wackily kill his opponent seems to come out of nowhere. Upon rewatch, Nelson slyly eyes the slightly uneven board on the table when chatting with Curly Joe (Clancy Brown) before he stands up, in one of the most subtle bits of acting in the film.
3. The jibbering bank teller in “Near Algodones” is played by Stephen Root, who once famously played another jibbering character, Milton in Office Space (“my stapler…”). His nervous reply to James Franco’s Cowboy when asked if he’s been robbed before veers into unintelligibility, but some sharp-eared folks on Reddit think they have it figured out: “Oh, sure enough have, two times attempted I should say, one fella I shot dead, bingo, the other I held for the marshall, both of his legs were shredded. Had to lock him in the vault there. Marshall don’t come through but once a month and he just visited the previous week. Had to billet that scab for what, three weeks? Applying a poultice of wet leaves and urine. He’s in Yuma now, busting rocks, still a little gimpy from what they say. Fella by the name of Shively unless I misremember said his papi was fr– from France.”
4. The actor who so heartbreakingly plays the doomed Artist (Harry Melling) in “Meal Ticket” is the same actor who played Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies, in a rather dramatic physical and character transformation.
5. The Artist and Liam Neeson’s character, “The Impressario,” never say anything to each other directly, which demonstrates the emotional distance in their relationship. One fan theory is the two are father and son, though that feels off — their accents are rather different and it seems like a strictly business relationship, a commentary on the brutal nature of show business (with a highbrow artist who is discarded for the lowbrow mob appeal of a counting chicken).
6. Speaking of which, that chicken might not actually be able to count. The Impressario never actually tested it. If true, the next logical scene would have been The Impressario setting up in the next town, realizing the chicken can’t count and that he killed The Artist for even less than nothing. He is, as they say, counting his chickens before they’re hatched (side note: the creepy awkward smile The Impressario gives The Artist as he approaches to kill him is one of the unnerving things I’ve seen in a movie all year).
7. The heavenly green valley in “All Gold Canyon” was actually filmed near Telluride, Colorado.
8. When stealing the owl’s eggs, the conflicted Prospector (Tom Waits) remarks, “How high can a bird count, anyway?” which is a reference to the chicken in the previous story and again hints The Impressario was conned.
9. One fan theory is The Prospector actually died after he was shot by the wannabe thief. Every story in the film is about death, and all the other main protagonists in the movie die (including in the final segment, which we’ll get to in a moment). So perhaps, the theory goes, he died and everything that happened afterward was some kind of afterlife. I suspect this is wrong, and that this hardworking American Dream fantasy is about perseverance and survival and the disruptiveness of man in nature — that The Prospector overcomes death is enough to keep this entry thematically consistent with the rest.
10. “All Gold Canyon” and “The Girl That Got Rattled” are both based on previously published short stories. The former is from Stewart Edward White and was changed dramatically. You can read them both in full at the above links.
11. The dog’s name in “The Girl That Got Rattled” is President Pierce, based on our 14th president whose life was beset by tragedy. All three of Pierce’s children died before age 12, each for different reasons. The dog’s first owner (Jefferson Mays) dies suddenly and inexplicably. After this, his sister Alice (Zoe Kazan) insists she’s not the dog’s owner and the dog is chased away. When she goes out to reclaim the dog, she becomes it’s “owner,” and then commits suicide after a tragic mistaken assumption. It’s almost like the dog is a harbinger of doom for whoever owns it.
12. There are some references to the Coen brothers’ True Grit in the film, such as a “Grandma Turner” character at the boarding house and a reference to the “Midnight Caller” story.
13. “The Mortal Remains” is, of course, very open to interpretation and none is more right than any other. But there are two different theories that seem rather likely. The first is that the trio of travelers are all recently deceased and navigating “the passage” between life and death. The clues include the skeletal trees in the landscape, the spectral coachmen who “never stops,” the two “Reapers” aboard, that heavily hinting monologue by Englishman (Jonjo O’Neil), that the travelers have no baggage when they arrive at the hotel, the angel and devilish goat emblems on the door, and the “stairway to heaven” at the end. Each of the three has their own unique perspective on the human condition, whether we’re instinctual animals (The Trapper), good or evil (The Lady) or it’s all relativistic (The Frenchman), and the Reapers counter that the only real difference is dead or alive.
14. An alternate take is that “The Mortal Remains” is actually about Lady (Tyne Daly), who has the only backstory specifically placing her in a stagecoach (she was traveling to meet her husband). The idea is she’s alive in the first half of the story, then dies during her choking distress after being goaded by The Frenchman (Saul Rubinek). So The Irishman (Brendan Gleeson) and Englishman reaper team are actually on that coach to collect her specifically. In the moment of her distress, The Englishman is talking to her (doing the distracting) while The Irishman takes her hand (doing the “thumping”).