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SOULS THAT CRY FOR WATER – BUSTER SCRUGGS AND THE MEANING OF LIFE

James Cooper


You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you;

I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you,

in a dry and parched land where there is no water.

Psalm 63:1


In the search for meaning and goodness in our world, do you sometimes feel like you’re wandering in a desert, dying of thirst, searching for water? Cool, clear water? Most of the answers offered up by society in our quest for fulfilment – geared towards the attainment of power, wealth, status, pleasure, comfort, self-pride etc. – turn out, on close inspection, to be little more than a tantalising mirage when it comes to satisfying the kind of sure hope we long to place in something – or someone – more stable than the shifting sands of fads, fashions and human emotions.


Or is it a forlorn hope to long for final answers – for transcendent truth, for objective goodness, and for some ultimate reason as to what life’s all about? At the end of the day, are all the stories we tell ourselves little more than self-consoling fantasies? At best, tall tales devised to stave off the terrifying possibility that there is no ultimate purpose; at worst, an idle distraction from the inevitability of death?

It’s easy to avoid such difficult questions, taking refuge instead behind the formulas of our faith (as sound as they may be), or any number of worldly plans and projects that might spare us the angst of confronting our mortality. Not so, Joel and Ethan Coen, creators of some of the most distinctive and thought-provoking films of the modern era – think Fargo, The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man, or No Country for Old Men. And in their 2018 cinematic anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coens really seem to throw down the gauntlet in challenging viewers to take life a little more seriously.


The film takes the form of a series of short stories, each set against the backdrop of the Wild West. Together, the stories comprise a sustained, entertaining, but at times excruciating meditation on death. That may sound bleak, but what better way to turn our attention to the question of the meaning of life than to remind us of the one fact we spend so much time and effort trying to avoid – our shared fate as mortal creatures? What do the lives we lead say about our deepest beliefs on this matter? What sort of “diversionary tactics” do we employ to avoid thinking about our own mortality? And how do we respond to those things that might cause us to despair – death, yes, but suffering too, our own temptation to sin, and just plain human hard-heartedness? In various ways, the stories that comprise The Ballad of Buster Scruggs urge us to reflect along these lines.


Catholic Bishop Robert Barron has commented online about many of the spiritual and biblical themes he sees at work in the Coens’ other movies, while also making the important point that their films are not for everybody! One reason for this is that the Coen brothers excel at depicting people in the throes of what Flannery O’Connor referred to as the “violent situation”, which she thought has a tendency to reveal in the average man “those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him.” As a short story writer, O’Connor found such situations a fruitful source of meaningful drama – an approach taken up by the Coen brothers, whose films, while often gritty and disturbing, invite the viewer to enter imaginatively into the existential crisis that ensues, and to forge a connection with their characters, however far removed they might seem from our own situation.


In this regard, the astute viewer will find in Buster Scruggs many parallels between the characters and events portrayed and those of our own times, and may even catch a glimpse of themselves along the way. Though the Wild West might seem a thousand miles away from our own time, the Coens’ choice of genre seems perfectly calculated to resonate with anyone who has felt the spiritual dryness I mentioned at the outset. Since its release, Buster Scruggs has elicited a whirlwind of commentary online, including some truly incisive reviews (I highly recommend this one). I don’t intend to survey The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in detail here, but it occurs to me that if the film has anything to say about what life might be worth living (and dying) for, there’s a clue to be found in the opening scene of the opening story…

Enter Buster Scruggs, the placid-faced, guitar-strumming cowboy whose pristine white getup gleams with a romantic innocence echoed in the surrounding vast and sun-bleached landscape of ornate rock formations and towering plumes of cumulonimbus. The scene appears drawn straight out of a Looney Tunes cartoon – indeed, everything about this opening story has an air of childish frivolity about it, the eventual violence coming so suddenly and spectacularly, and rendered in such a comical fashion, we might find ourselves laughing before we mean to.


When we are children, death can seem like a joke; violent death a mere entertainment – the cartoon villain’s gun-blasted face disappearing in the next scene with no sign of lasting damage. So, too, in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, death and violence are rendered larger than life and so absurd at times that we’re tempted simply to laugh it off. And yet we are not children anymore, and for most viewers these scenes elicit a certain disquiet in the soul. More on that in a moment – first, back to our smart-mouthed, fancy-pants hero:


We first meet Buster Scruggs riding through the desert on his faithful horse, Dan, serenading the emptiness with a song actually written by Bob Nolan and made famous by Vaughan Monroe in the early 20th Century – Cool Water. The lyrics are telling, and set the tone for the entire cinematic anthology:


All day I've faced a barren waste Without the taste of water, cool water Old Dan and I with throats burned dry And souls that cry for water Cool, clear, water


Keep a-movin, Dan, dontcha listen to him, Dan He's a devil, not a man He spreads the burning sand with water Dan, can ya see that big, green tree? Where the water's runnin' free And it's waitin' there for me and you?


The nights are cool and I'm a fool Each star's a pool of water Cool water But with the dawn I'll wake and yawn And carry on to water Water, water, water


Keep a-movin, Dan, dontcha listen to him, Dan He's a devil, not a man He spreads the burning sand with water Dan, can ya see that big, green tree? Where the water's runnin' free And it's waitin' there for me and you?


Cool, clear, water Cool, clear, water


This opening performance instantly warms us to Buster. We perceive him as a figure of innocence and virtue, and although he’s a wanted man, he goes to some considerable effort (addressing the camera directly) to convince us that he has been misunderstood. Done singing, he introduces himself:


Maybe y’all’ve heard a me, Buster Scruggs—known to some as the San Saba Songbird. I got other handles, nicknames, appellations and cognoments…


Reaching into his saddle bag he produces a Wanted poster featuring his own picture and name, beneath which we read the appellation: “The Misanthrope”. However, Buster is quick to reassure us the label is misapplied:


... but this’n here I don’t consider t’be even halfways earned. I don’t hate m’fellow man even when he’s tiresome’n surly’n tries to cheat at poker. Why I figure that’s just the human material... and himmet finds in it cause for anger’n dismay is just a fool for expectin’ better.


We are likely charmed and convinced that Buster really doesn’t mean anyone any harm. What are we to make, then, when his search to quench his thirst leads him to a dingy cantina, populated with outlaws, and a surly bartender who denies Buster’s request for whisky? The bartender informs Buster that whisky is illegal and that the other men in the cantina are only drinking whisky because they’re outlaws. Again, Buster resorts to sweet talk to put his audience at rest:


Well don’t let m’white duds’n pleasant demeanor fool ya, I too have been known to violate the statutes a man—and not a few a the laws a the Almighty.


One of the hard men seated nearby confronts Buster, mocking his credentials and calling him a “tinhorn”. Again, Buster resorts to rhetoric in an attempt to talk his enemies around – though not without a few cutely phrased backhanders:


Sir, it seems you are no better a judge of human bein’s than you are a specimen of one. Just on a brief inventory I’d say you could use yourself a shave and a brighter disposition and lastly if you don’t mind me aspersin’ your friends a better class of drinkin’ buddies.


There’s no adequate way to describe what happens next. Suffice it to say that, once physically threatened, Buster Scruggs unleashes a holocaust of sharp-shooting that leaves every man in the vicinity stone dead.


Stunned, we might laugh at the cartoonish brutality of the scene. At first. But we are also left reeling at what just happened, and a little uncertain about our initial estimation of Buster’s character. Granted, he was provoked, then threatened with his life, and he did give his enemies every chance to see reason. The retribution visited upon them sits uncomfortably in the mind, therefore, as being at once entirely justified and yet utterly excessive.


And that, I think, is kind of the point of Buster Scruggs. He is, in spite of his self-confessed flaws, a genuine personification of goodness and justice. In fact, his honesty in admitting his past misdemeanours only adds to his good character. But we are not used to seeing righteousness burn with such searing intensity. Buster’s justice is blind, and blinding – as spotless and glaring as his pure white clothes. Throughout the rest of the story we see Buster honestly and willingly abiding by the law, surrendering his arms as requested at the next watering hole, and innocently seeking to socialise and enjoy himself. But again and again he encounters those who cannot abide his innocent demeanour, men who regard him as beneath contempt and who seem determined to run his squeaky-white hide out of town. And every one of them winds up dead.


As merciless as he is, we can’t help but cheer for Buster. Maybe because he is so merciless. In a world starved of justice and righteousness, we find antiheros like Buster strangely alluring. And Buster is clearly the hero of the picture. Though a strange hero, for that. For before long, if we’re honest, we can’t help but wonder how long we might last in Buster’s company. Would we really want to live with such a harsh brand of justice? If each of us were, in fact, to get only what we deserved, how well would we fare?


But what of the song Buster sings at the beginning of the film? In a way, I think, it provides an interpretive key for the entire series of short stories. What is it about? It’s all about searching for water in a dry and hostile desert. It also issues a warning about the temptation to chase after mirages and false promises. It even raises the frightening question of whether or not there is in fact any answer to our thirst. But the refrain throughout is clear: keep a movin’, carry on, continue the search. If the search for water – physical or spiritual – is merely a fool’s quest, the song seems to imply that it’s still worth making. This understated faith, or hope in ultimate goodness and justice, provides a helpful frame of reference for navigating and making sense of the stories that follow.


Indeed, I think if we admire Buster for anything it’s for his consistent (if ruthless) commitment to a high (though unliveable) standard of justice. Like death itself, the kind of harsh justice Buster stands for is metered out to everyone with a kind of blind indifference to status or station. Even Buster is not exempt, for he eventually meets his match at the hands of “The Kid” (the next generation, perhaps?). Superficially, The Kid is Buster’s opposite – dressed head to toe in black, riding a black horse, sporting a burly black moustache. And indeed The Kid rides into town precisely in order to take the place of the legendary San Saba Songbird – Buster – whom The Kid also refers to as “The Herald of Demise”. The story seems to be saying: in the end, one generation to the next, death comes for us all. What, then, of the way you live?


I shan’t spoil the ending entirely. Let’s just say Buster’s story sets the tone for the rest of the anthology by confronting the viewer with the cruel and inescapable fact of our mortality, while raising the question of to what extent we’re prepared to live by the high ideals we use to judge others. It also signals another pervasive theme – the myriad ways in which we attempt to domesticate, disregard or otherwise demystify death. When we are young, death is easily laughed away in the cartoonish fashion of a wild west gunfight. In our youth, death seems so far off we’re apt to consider ourselves immortal, the lords of our own destiny. In middle age we readily seek diversion in all sorts of schemes and plans, the pursuit of worldly pleasure, wealth or comfort. In old age, as death starts to loom large, we might turn finally to the axioms of faith or philosophy to help soften the spectre of our earthly demise. But which of these, if any, is the right way to lead a life?


The Coens do not intend to provide a straightforward answer. Again, their main business seems more to be about posing the important questions. The sequence of stories that comprise The Ballad of Buster Scruggs vividly depicts the above spectrum of attitudes toward death, from childhood through to old age, with each subsequent story proving darker – thematically and visually – than the one before. In every story, death rears its ugly and unpredictable head, and we are invited to consider the various states of preparedness of those affected; and presumably, by extension, our own.

In the final story, aptly titled Mortal Remains, we meet three passengers aboard a stagecoach who, as they bicker over their conflicting philosophies of life, gradually become aware that death has already called, and the two “undertakers” seated opposite are in fact there to escort them on towards their eternal destiny. Confronted with the reality of death, the passengers’ treasured philosophies suddenly seem far less certain. This too – i.e. uncertainty – is another central theme in the collection.


If there is a liveable wisdom to be found anywhere in these six short stories, it surely comes through in the penultimate episode – The Gal Who Got Rattled. It is probably the saddest story I’ve ever encountered, and that is partly because it features two of the most likeable and overtly virtuous characters on offer. Alice Longabaugh and her older brother Gilbert, an inept businessman, are journeying in a wagon train across the American prairies when Gilbert suffers a coughing fit and dies. All alone in the world and facing an uncertain future, Alice strikes up a friendship with one of the men guiding the wagon train, Billy Knapp. Their burgeoning romance is beautifully portrayed, the pair appearing perfectly suited, right down to a shared and humble faith. At one point, Alice confesses her uncertainty compared to that of her recently departed brother, who always “had a saying for any situation. A ready bit of wisdom.” She evidently sees this as a fault in her character and feels somewhat ashamed. But Billy Knapp is quick to reassure her that this is no defect at all. He tells her straight up:


Oh no. Uncertainty—that is appropriate for the matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty.


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.


“Certainty”—it is the easy path, just as you said.


“Straight is the gate…” Alice offers as a summary remark, with Billy Knapp concluding the well-known scripture… “and narrow the way. Indeed.”


If The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has any philosophy of life to recommend, it’s this kind of modesty before the mystery of existence. A stoic preparedness to cling only tentatively to even our best worldly schemes, and to hope only in the certainty that is vouchsafed by faith in a higher order of justice and mercy yet to come.


In the song Buster sings in the movie’s opening sequence, the rider never does find his drink of cool water. But it seems to be the Coens’ point that it is really the thirsting that matters most of all, for it points beyond any of the temporary and temporal solutions we might happen upon or fashion for ourselves, none of which are ever adequate. If there is a living spring that might finally satisfy our yearning for salvation in an uncertain world, it is not to be found in this life.


As a Christian I would of course go further, arguing that the world to come is already (albeit not finally) with us in the life of the Church – that the Word made flesh has entered into the midst of our suffering and dwelt among us in order to redeem the world, beginning here and now. But as a general spiritual attitude, I think the Coens are onto something truly wise here – seeing that in this life it is best to forgo final judgements, knowing that we too shall be judged, and that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those (like Alice, like Billy Knapp, and like Buster Scruggs) who thirst for righteousness – to those souls that cry for water.


Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Matthew 5:6


James Cooper is Head of Creative Writing & Communication at Tabor College. He has written and published numerous poems and short stories in journals and anthologies, including Dappled Things, Light Quarterly and Tales from the Upper Room. He is a founding member of Stories of Life and is Senior Editor at inScribe Journal.