‘All Gold Canyon,’ the fourth segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is the only one in which a main character doesn’t die. It’s also the only one adapted entirely from another source — in this case, Jack London’s short story of the same name.
An unrecognizable Tom Waits stars as a prospector who ventures into the most beautiful, pristine canyon you’ve ever seen and begins digging for pocket gold.
The method depicted in the story and film is based on real-life pocket hunting, and it’s fascinating to watch. The prospector pans for tiny gold nuggets around a stream in order to mark off the most fruitful area. Then he progressively narrows the focus in a triangle up the side of the hill until he reaches the apex, where he digs a large hole to discover the hidden pocket of gold.
It is painstaking work, requiring time, persistence and physical exertion. And once the prospector has put in all of that hard work and uncovered a large gold rock, he sees a shadow and realizes somebody has crept up behind him. Before he can react, he is shot in the back and left in the hole to die.
But the twist in this episode is a happy one. It turns out the prospector was only playing dead, and when the thief jumps in the hole to claim his bounty, the prospector wrestles the gun free and kills him. He tends to his wound, exuberantly shouting “He didn’t hit nothing important!” Then he buries the man, takes his gold and leaves the canyon.
On its face, this is the most uplifting of the film’s segments. But alongside the tale of a hard worker defeating a craven opportunist is a tale of human greed and violence intruding on Mother Nature.
The segment opens with shots of butterflies, fish and a deer enjoying the peaceful meadow before they are frightened away by the prospector’s arrival. After all the digging and killing is done and the man goes on his way, those animals return, only now to a meadow pockmarked with the evidence of his intrusion.
It’s hard not to think ahead 100 years to the way human beings, heroes and villains alike, have continued to ravage the planet.