This segment is a lot less cartoonish than the opener but it’s the second most comical of the six. The Coens ease viewers into the darkness, which hits with a wallop in the next chapter.
In ‘Near Algodones,’ Franco’s unnamed cowboy plans to rob a bank in a remote part of the prairie. Stephen Root plays the bank teller, delivering one of his patented oddball performances. Despite a clear warning from the teller that other wannabe bank robbers have met with unfortunate ends, Franco tries his luck and winds up captured (but not before the teller runs at him, covered in a homemade suit of armor composed of pots and pans, shouting “pan shot!” every time a bullet ricochets off).
Sentenced to hang for his crime, the Cowboy is saved when a group of Comanches attacks the posse, killing everybody but him. Another rider passes by and frees him and they ride together just long enough for a second posse to arrest them for cattle rustling. After another comically quick trial, he finds himself on the gallows.
“First time?” Franco deadpans to a fellow convict getting fitted for a noose.
Before the moment of truth, the Cowboy catches a glimpse of a young woman near the front of a group of spectators. “There’s a pretty girl,” he whispers as a bag goes over his head and we hear the rope go taut. There is no ascent to heaven this time, only darkness.
‘Near Algodones’ is about the cost of bad decisions and the inevitability of death. Depending on how you read the segment’s final moments, it ends with either a dark joke or a moment of grace. I believe it’s the latter.
Does the Cowboy believe he’s going to escape this dilemma, as he has all the rest? Or is he resigned to his fate and finding solace in one last glimpse of something decent and lovely before the darkness? The more cynical reading would say he expects the woman to somehow save him — as I did upon first viewing.
But rewatching the film, I see acceptance in his expression — acknowledgement that he might have taken many paths, but the one he took led him here.