Song of the Day #3,811: ‘Surly Joe’ – Tim Blake Nelson

We’re getting close to year’s end, and I have a host of movies left to see that have a shot at cracking my top ten.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma leads the pack, followed by (in no particular order) Vice, Mary Poppins Returns, If Beale Street Could Talk, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Favourite and Widows. Plus a host of movies from earlier in the year I need to catch up with at home: Hearts Beat Loud, The Rider, The Oath and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, to name a few.

But as things stand, the best movie of the year by far is the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. And this week I’m going to give it some well-deserved attention.

It’s rare that filmmakers use the anthology format. You mostly see it in movies that compile short films by multiple directors (New York Stories, Paris je t’aime, Twilight Zone: The Movie) but I can’t remember the last time I saw a film like Buster Scruggs, which presents six unrelated but thematically linked stories using the same behind-the-screen talent.

This unique format gives me the opportunity to explore each of the film’s segments in turn, one per post over the next six days. Warning: These posts will contain heavy spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Buster Scruggs yet and want to, get thee to NetFlix before reading on.

The film starts with the title tale, ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.’ by far the most absurd and overtly comic of the bunch. Tim Blake Nelson plays Scruggs, a cold-blooded sharpshooter who is just as charming and disarming as can be until he is crossed. Then he’s as good at dishing out bloody mayhem as any of the Coens’ stable of seemingly unstoppable monsters (Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona, Lorren Visser in Blood Simple).

Scruggs takes offense at being labelled “The Misanthrope” on one of his wanted posters, saying “I don’t hate my fellow man, even when he’s tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that’s just the human material, and him that finds in it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.”

It’s hard not to read this as a comment on the Coens themselves, whose films have long been called misanthropic and nihilistic. In fact, The Human Material would be a good alternate title for this film, or hell, a good summation of the Brothers’ entire filmography. They make movies about the human capacity for greed, selfishness and violence — and occasionally compassion and grace — in a world looked over by an indifferent god.

In that sense, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs might be the most Coen-y movie of them all. Each of its six segments is about the human material, at its best but mostly its worst, and the ultimate fate awaiting us all.

Using the Old West as a backdrop for those stories is appropriate, as the high stakes and low margin for error provide plenty of dramatic fodder, and the gorgeous scenery is catnip for cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. The western milieu also gives the Coens a variety of archetypes around which to build their narratives.

Buster Scruggs is a singing cowboy in the Gene Autry mold — if Gene Autry had a talent for blowing a man’s fingers off from 50 yards out. Scruggs moves from town to town looking for a glass of whiskey and a game of cards, but the West being how it is, he often runs into trouble. And that trouble ends with somebody dead and him singing.

Buster meets his match when another singing cowboy rolls into town and bests him in a duel. Just when the viewer has come to accept Buster as a superhero with a sixgun, bam, he’s dead. That death kicks off a pattern of morbid twists we’ll encounter throughout the film.

The central theme of this segment is that nothing lasts forever. As the new cowboy sings, after kicking some dust over Buster’s dead body, “Let me tell you, buddy, there’s a faster gun coming over yonder when tomorrow comes / Let me tell you, buddy, and it won’t be long till you find yourself singing your last cowboy song.”

In keeping with the tale’s cartoonish tone, Buster’s ghost rises from the ground and joins in the song as, winged, he ascends to heaven. Addressing the audience, he says ” There’s just gotta be a place up ahead where men ain’t low-down and poker’s played fair…. I’ll see y’all there and we can sing together and shake our heads over all the meanness in the used-to-be.”

This is the most optimistic vision of the afterlife the film offers up, and it’s reserved for the deadliest character. And in one of the film’s dominant themes, Buster doesn’t fight his fate but accepts it with grace.

Surly Joe the gambler, he will gamble nevermore
His days of stud and hold’em they are done
It was long about last April he stepped into this saloon, but he never really took to anyone

Surly Joe (Surly Joe!)
Surly Joe (Surly Joe!)
Oh wherever he’s gambling now, I don’t know (We don’t know!)

He was slick but I was slicker
He drew quick but I was quicker
and a table stopped his ticker
Surly Joe Yee-haw!

Surly Joe (Surly Joe!)
Surly Joe (Surly Joe!)
Won’t be missed by anyone will Surly Joe (Surely no!)

Humankind he frowned upon
But not now, his face is gone
Guess your frowning days are done
Oh, Surly Joe (Yee-haw!)

Surly Joe (Surly Joe!)
Surly Joe (Surly Joe!)
A cedilla on the C of Curly Joe
(Curly Joe!)

He was mean in days of yore
Now they’re mopping up the floor
One more sight to make him sore
Oh, Surly Joe (Yee-haw)

Surly Joe (Surly Joe!)
Surly Joe (Surly Joe!)
Where the rest his face has got to we don’t know (We don’t know!)

He was never any fun
Now his grumpy race is run
Kisser blown to kingdom-come
Oh, Surly Joe (Yee-haw!)

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #3,811: ‘Surly Joe’ – Tim Blake Nelson

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    It may be as hard for me to be engaged in your blog this week and commenting as it was to watch this movie. I appreciated aspects of the film, and was probably most engaged with the first segment, but, frankly, would have preferred a deep dive into your number two film, Mamma Mia II. At least that would have featured some fun music.😁

  2. Peg Clifton says:

    I look forward to this week and am curious and interested in your analysis of each segment. I agree that this one was the funniest even though there was violence.

  3. Amy says:

    I’m catching up on this week’s posts and have to say, for starters,that this one should be sent to the Coen Brothers as exhibit A for why you should write a book about their films.

    I haven’t updated my list since seeing this film over Thanksgiving weekend, as I needed to let the film sink in a bit before judging it. During these past weeks, I find myself reflecting on it fondly (though certainly not finding it the best film = by far?! – of the year.

    Great analysis, and this episode certainly was a stunning and strange way to kick off the film.

    • Christine Ward says:

      We love Buster Skruggs watch it a couple times a week with friends closed caption so that we can sing along. so much fun!

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