Song of the Day #3,813: ‘The Wingless Thrush’ – Carter Burwell

The third chapter of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is by far the bleakest. Following two darkly comic segments, ‘Meal Ticket’ is just plain dark.

Liam Neeson stars as an impresario who travels from town to town with his act, an armless, legless man nicknamed Harrison the Wingless Thrush (played beautifully by Harry Melling, Dudley in the Harry Potter films). While he might look like a carnival side show act, Harrison’s talent is in his oratory. He eloquently delivers poetry, Shakespeare, Biblical verses and famous speeches from atop a stool.

The impresario cares for Harrison in every waking hour — feeding him, helping him use the bathroom — but he does so out of professional duty, not affection. In one telling moment he feeds the limbless man a spoonful of beans right from the pot, burning his mouth, before begrudgingly blowing on the next serving.

As the men ply their trade, the crowds begin to dwindle to the point where they’re making little to no money. The impresario notices a large crowd around another man’s cart, in which a chicken is seemingly performing math. He buys the chicken.

In the segment’s final scene, Harrison is riding stone-faced in the back of the cart, the chicken sitting in a cage beside him. The impresario stops alongside a high cliff, gets out, and tosses a large rock over the edge to test the depth of the river below. We know exactly what’s going to happen next, but the Coens don’t show us. Instead they jump ahead to the cart moving down the trail with now just the chicken in the back.

‘Meal Ticket’ is a bleak allegory for show business, with the chicken representing anything from reality TV to CGI-driven blockbusters. Harrison the Wingless Thrush, with his love of language and showman’s flair, could be the Coens themselves.

Not only do the crowds shift from the sophisticated to the sensational, but it’s so much easier to feed a chicken than support a helpless man. The suggestion is that true art requires time and effort, and producers chasing a quick buck aren’t willing to make the sacrifice. It’s interesting that, though the Coens wrote this script many years ago, it wound up as part of a movie they released through NetFlix, presumably because the support wasn’t there from a traditional studio.

9 thoughts on “Song of the Day #3,813: ‘The Wingless Thrush’ – Carter Burwell

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    This was where the movie….sorry “film” started to lose me. This chapter was too dark, too pretentious, too didactic, and too patronizingly judgmental (of the public/audience) with no counterbalance of comedy or self-scrutiny or self-evaluation. Maybe it’s not the audiences’ fault or failing that they don’t want to listen to Shakespeare, oratories or the Bible. Maybe the Coen Brothers would be well served to take the advice of Mary Poppins and recognize that a “spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down…in the most delightful way.”

    Great entertainers can and do make quality art containing content good for the soul and mind while also being “entertainment.” Indeed, the Coens have struck that balance many times in their career. Arguably, the first two chapters struck that balance, but not, in my opinion, this or the other chapters.

    Too much medic8ne without enough or any sugar makes me want crave candy, or, in this case, some American Idol or Mission Impossible. “That doesn’t make me a shallow person, does it?” Arguably, the Coens think it does.

    • Clay says:

      I disagree completely. This segment is the only one of the six that doesn’t deliver laughs. There’s plenty of sugar in Buster Scruggs to help the medicine go down. Indeed, the Coen’s entire filmography is proof that they consider humor an integral part of cinematic art.

    • Clay says:

      Also, while this is definitely the grimmest chapter, it is far from self-serious. “The Wingless Thrush” vs. a math-whiz chicken could just as easily make for a slapstick comedy. I’m sure it took a lot of restraint for them to play it so straight.

      • Dana Gallup says:

        To clarify, it’s not just about humor or lack thereof. If that were the case, most action films and dramas would not be considered entertaining. It’s about pretentiousness balanced by entertainment or, if you prefer, commercialism/accessibility. It’s also a matter of degree rather than kind. Sometimes great artists strike that balance and sometimes they don’t. Woody Allen did in Annie Hall, Manhattan, etc., not so much in Interiors. Wes Anderson did in Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaums, not so much in Isle of Dogs—the latter a prime example of a film with humor being outflanked by pretentiousness.

        I know you disagree, and that’s fine, but I submit that your tolerance level or even appreciation of pretentiousness is far higher than a commoner like me. Or, to return to Mary Poppins, I need more sugar than you do to make the medicine go down.

        • Clay says:

          I agree that I enjoy what you call “pretentiousness” more than you do. But I think you are very quick to throw the word “pretentious” at anything non-traditional that you don’t like.

          Moulin Rouge is pretentious as hell, but you like it. Do you consider it pretentious? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is pretentious. The Wes Anderson movies you named that you do like are extremely pretentious.

          To be clear, I don’t actually find any of those movies pretentious by the dictionary definition of the word. But they aspire to something bolder than the norm. When you don’t like a movie that does that, you tend to call it pretentious.

          • Dana Gallup says:

            As I said, it’s a matter of degree, not kind. Yes, a movie can be bold and quirky or strive for “high art,” and still work for me if properly balanced. I did like the movies you reference, though not as much as you did, and I didn’t dislike all of this movie, but I felt that, with each passing chapter, the balance tipped away.

  2. Peg Clifton says:

    I found this segment incredibly sad but not pretentious. It’s also a story of survival and to what end someone may go to continue his/her life. I am a fan of foreign films and mostly tragic operas probably because I’m moved by what I see and not because I’m pretentious (I hope). But I also love a good comedy 😊

  3. Amy says:

    This was the chapter where I started thinking the film was better than I initially thought, so I guess I’m pretentious, too ;P Actually, in some ways, this was the episode I appreciate the most for its simplicity and for the profoundly sad performance of Melling. He was completely dependent on his benefactor to live, which is a tremendous burden to place on another human being, and so much hurt and longing was conveyed without words, despite the fact that his talent was as an orator.

    I found the allegory more provocative than preachy, and I’m still not certain I’ve figured out all the ways this middle episode serves as a key to better understand the two chapters that precede and then follow it.

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