'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' Has a Heart With Six Chambers

The six chapters of Joel and Ethan Coen's latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, capture the breathtaking spectrum of one of cinema's oldest and most distinctly American genres—the Western.

In the first short, which shares the movie's title, Coen stalwart Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother Where Art Thou?) plays a singing cowboy in the Gene Autry tradition with blazing, bloody gunfighting talents more appropriate to the colorful brutality of the Spaghetti Western era. Subsequent shorts feature James Franco as a bank robber buffeted by odd circumstance and a weathered Tom Waits prospecting for gold. It is, on first watch, a wildly variable tour of the genre itself, free-firing ideas from vastly different eras and stories.

But the penultimate chapter of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, "The Gal Who Got Rattled," more than any other, uncovers the true heart of the movie. An unorthodox romance between Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) reveals the human substance that flourishes amid the grim absurdity of a dying Western variety show. Several segments of Buster Scruggs are quick vignettes of largely static characters, but "The Gal Who Got Rattled" feels surprisingly whole.

"The Gal Who Got Rattled" opens in the cramped dining room of a St. Louis boarding house, where Alice and her imperious buffoon of a brother, Gilbert (Jefferson Mays), describe their plans for Oregon. Gilbert plans to marry Alice off to a potential business partner, but it ceases to matter when her brother drops dead shortly after joining the wagon party heading west.

"I was enormously moved by Alice's situation. She's in such a life-or-death circumstance and she has no equipment in terms of dealing with the challenges life has put in front of her," Kazan told Newsweek. "I don't think she knows her own strengths and is learning how to take care of herself."

Alice is left alone and in debt after her brother's death. Netflix

Alice, left with her brother's poor planning and yapping dog, struggles to confront the yawning gulf ahead of her. She's no longer heading toward a life her brother made for her, but with months of trail ahead, she's hardly free to build a life for herself, either. She finds an ally in Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), one of two trail guides hired to lead the wagon train to Oregon.

Billy harbors his own uncertainties. He's spent years on the trail with his mentor Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) and he doesn't like the look of his future either. Mr. Arthur may be the perfect cowboy—with hard-won outdoorsman's knowledge and a flinty stare—but his practical personality begins to look less like stoicism and more like spiritual atrophy. Plus, he's not getting any younger. And what future will Mr. Arthur have when his body can't keep up?

Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) can do anything except small talk. Netflix

After doing his best to balance his duties to the wagon train while helping Alice, Billy soon comes up with a solution: would she consider him as a husband?

"I think our modern conception of on-screen romance is so different from how these people would have thought about romance and marriage. From the beginning of the story marriage is put forth as something very practical. Alice's brother is talking about marrying her off as part of a business deal," Kazan said.

But what happens next is the real surprise.

Both Heck and Kazan, who previously performed together in a 2010 off-Broadway production of Angels in America, both described the growth of Billy and Alice's relationship in similar terms.

"He may be a closeted romantic to a certain degree, but I don't think he's like, 'I'm going to fall in love,'" Heck said of Billy to Newsweek. "It's a very necessary survival thing that brings these people together. The beautiful bit about it is it turns out they like each other."

"The surprise is that they like each other," Kazan said. "It isn't simply practical. Something else happens between them."

"They like each other," may not sound like a blistering romance, but in the deadly west of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs the moment is a humanist revelation, as Alice and Billy's diffident courtship transcend toil. Billy's proposal to Alice may be one of the sweetest moments the Coen Brothers, not often known for their sentimentality, have captured since Norm Gunderson insisted on getting up early to cook eggs for Marge at the beginning of Fargo.

"That's sort of his survival technique: helping other people to survive," Heck said. "And he finally has the chance to take this shot for the survival of his spirit."

Their relationship culminates in a beautiful firelit conversation, as Billy and Alice open up to each other, finally stepping beyond the bounds of circumstance and survival.

Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) in "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." Netflix

The outdoor set got rained out, so Heck and Kazan shot the scene inside a barn-like hangar. It was an unplanned change from the wind-whipped texture of the rest of the shoot. "There's something nice about that," Kazan said, painting a vivid picture of the moment, "with the wagons brought inside and dimly lit, just enough you couldn't really tell it wasn't outdoors"—a sharp contrast with several other scenes set around the cookfires where wagoneers gathered to eat and rest after a long day of walking.

"Uncertainty—that is appropriate for matters of this world," Billy tells Alice from across the campfire. "I believe certainty regarding that which we can see and touch, it is seldom justified, if ever. Down the ages from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones, wanting their comfort."

Each had lived lives across from powerful certainty, Alice under the control of her cocksure brother, Billy alongside a paragon of craggy, manly assurance. "We see how you can invite a gentle kind of courage into your experience when you reach out and you take care of people and you allow people to take care of you," Heck said.

"It was incredible," Heck said. “There was 16 full-replica Conestoga wagons, each one gorgeous and detailed. Horses, mules, oxen and 60-plus extras all decked out. And you’re just pulling wagons and riding horses and sitting around campfires for four weeks, playing cowboy and Oregon Trail.” Netflix

"The Gal Who Got Rattled" is not only key to understanding the rest of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but a moving rebuttal to the criticism most often made of the Coen brothers' output: their supposed nihilism, often wielded alongside the adjective "empty," suggesting all of their talent is thin cover for a core of meaninglessness and death-worship. There are chapters of Buster Scruggs, particularly James Franco's segment "Near Algodones" and Liam Neeson's "Meal Ticket," which could certainly bear a nihilist reading. But "The Gal Who Got Rattled" rebuts: even if death is the end, that doesn't make it the substance.

"To me, it feels like kind of the heart of the piece," Kazan said.

"I feel like the piece overall is about mortality and death, but I don't think it's only saying, 'Well, people die.' Exploring that fact is about, 'Well, what do you do until that happens?'" Heck said. "Each one explores the different sorts of courage that take people from birth to death. It's about how people put one foot in front of the other."

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is out in theaters now and will premiere on Netflix Nov. 16.