The Wild West is a Hard Place for Man (and Dog) in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

Bill Heck is Billy Knapp in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,’ a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s new anthology western, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” tells six different stories of life in the Old West involving bank robbers, bounty hunters, gunslingers and showmen. The Coens’ trademark dark humor plays out in each segment, often with tragic results, proving that every moment on the frontier could be life or death.

In the fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” a dog’s fate is closely intertwined with the people he travels with. Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and her brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) travel to Oregon in hopes of a new life. Gilbert has a tentative business connection there whom he hopes will marry Alice, although nothing has been definitely settled. With them is Gilbert’s Jack Russell named President Pierce.

Does the dog live in the movie? Yes, but it’s still not a happy story. Read on for a spoiler-ridden discussion if you’ve already watched the film.

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Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ (Netflix)

[SPOILERS]

While on the trail, Gilbert takes ill and passes away. Alice is left with no one and an even more uncertain future. All she has is Gilbert’s dog, whom everyone else regards as a nuisance, due to his constant barking. When trail boss Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) learns that the dog is not hers, and that she is also overwhelmed by the dog, he offers to put it down for her. She agrees and he carries the dog off into the distance, intending to shoot it.

She covers her ears as she hears shots, but when he returns, Knapp sheepishly tells her that he missed his first shot and the dog has run off. He guesses because of the scare, President Pierce is unlikely to return.

It’s an enormous testament to both actors (and the writers) that we still like both characters despite their trying to kill a dog whose only crime was wanting attention.

Several miles later, things have changed considerably for Alice. Having come out from her controlling brother’s shadow, she is now able to consider life on her own terms and make her own decisions. She and Mr. Knapp have become close and she has even accepted his proposal of marriage. Their burgeoning romance is one of the only happy story lines in the entire film.

With her life holding promise for the first time, she’s more than happy to see President Pierce when he reappears. After hearing him barking Alice goes to find him, over a nearby hill. Now, his barking at prairie dogs delights her.

ballad-faceplateMr. Arthur (Grainger Hines), the other trail boss, finds her and urges her to rejoin the wagon train. And that’s when he spies a Comanche on the horizon, the first of many. He and Alice are too far from the other wagons to make it back in time. They are going to have to make a stand. He hands Alice a pistol and tells her that if he is killed, she should shoot herself rather than face the certain horrors she’ll suffer at the hands of the Comanches. (None of the stories are told from the Comanches’ point of view. They crop only as a plot device here and in the “Near Algodones” segment with James Franco.)

The Comanches rush Arthur while Alice and the dog hide behind a small outcropping. Mr. Arthur fights valiantly, but appears to have fallen to the last Comanche. However, he has a trick up his sleeve and emerges the victor.

He returns to Alice, only to find her dead. Thinking the worst, she has followed his dire instructions and taken her own life. The tough trail boss laments her unnecessary death. With the dog at his heels, he heads back to the wagon train, with no idea what to say to Mr. Knapp.

All of the stories are begun as chapters in a book, with one illustrated color plate each. This was the color plate preceding the story, although when we first see it, we have no idea how tragic this seemingly happy image of a man and his dog are.

I’d like to think that the dog stays on the trail with Mr. Arthur. Or settles in Oregon with Mr. Knapp.

One could argue that Alice would never have died if the dog hadn’t been along for the journey west. You could just as well argue that if she hadn’t felt pressured to get rid of the dog, this tragedy would also have been averted.

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Grainger Hines in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (Netflix)

The animals in the film were provided by Animal Actors of Hollywood and the dog trainer was Deborah L. Delosso of Studio Animal Services. They have a Jack RussellĀ  named Decoy who is likely the dog who played President Pierce.

For the horse fans, we see two horse falls and Mr. Arthur shoots a horse after it has been injured. The credits do not list any animal monitoring service such as Humane Hollywood.

And some historical trivia: The real President Pierce (widely regarded as one of the worst presidents in US history) had several small dogs, including some Japanese Chins he was gifted from Japan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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