The penultimate segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, titled ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled,’ is the film’s longest. In fact, I could see this one being effectively fleshed out to feature length had the Coen Brothers wanted to go in that direction.
Starring Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, a young woman following the Oregon Trail to the vague promise of an arranged marriage, and Bill Heck as Billy Knapp, one of the cowboys charged with escorting the caravan, this is one of the most earnestly romantic stories the Coens have ever told.
When Alice’s brother dies of cholera on the trail, she is left penniless and in debt to their sullen farmhand. Billy, who is looking to leave the cowboy life, offers the pragmatic solution of marrying Alice himself and assuming her debt. The offer is made politely but with all the romance of a bank transaction.
However, as the journey continues and Alice weighs her options, the two drift into a lovely friendship that promises to bloom into true love. Their fireside conversations provide the film’s most graceful and resonant moments.
Of course, given the overall theme of Buster Scruggs, things go to shit. When Alice wanders from the caravan to find her lost dog, she ends up attacked by Comanches. Billy’s partner, Mr. Arthur, does a valiant job fighting them off, but not before giving Alice a pistol with two shots in it, so that if they are captured she can take his life and her own.
For a moment it looks like Mr. Arthur has been killed, but he rebounds to kill off the last of the Indians. But he discovers that Alice, mistaking him for dead, has already shot herself.
The heartbreaking final lines of the story: “Mr Arthur had no idea what he would say to Billy Knapp.”
‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ is a good old-fashioned melodrama, full of humor, romance and action. Alice was doomed from the start, for being a woman without means in a harsh world. Billy is destined to live the ranging life he fears is his fate. For the briefest time, they found solace and hope in each other, and maybe that is all any of us can hope for in this world.
As Billy says to Alice during one late-night chat: “I believe certainty regarding that which we 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.”
Those lines are a pretty neat summation of the film’s underlying message. One that is driven home in the final chapter, which I will cover tomorrow.