From The Coen Brothers, A Lesson For The Times: Don’t Get Rattled

Coen Brothers
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We take our lessons where we find them. Too many of mine, I find at the movies. Maybe it’s a generational fault; like others who came of age in the ’60s and early ’70s, I learned to think and talk in film lines. “I know it was you, Fredo.” “Who are those guys?” “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!” That sort of thing.

Lately, I’ve been hung up on not a line, but a title. That is, The Gal Who Got Rattled, which was one of six segments in the Coen brothers’ off-center 2018 Western anthology, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs.

Frankly, I got a little rattled last week, when Los Angeles County extended its coronavirus stay-at-home order for another five weeks, through May 15. That amounts to a two-month hold, counting from California’s original lockdown command on March 19. It’s hard to contemplate masks, closures, income collapse, sickness and possible death for the foreseeable future — at least, not without a cinematic shudder.

But Joel and Ethan Coen, in their slightly bent way, had something to offer.

Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Netflix/Kobal/Shutterstock

Like all six episodes in Buster Scruggs, The Gal Who Got Rattled was a tale about death. This one — which was loosely based on Stewart Edward White’s 1901 short story, “The Girl Who Got Rattled” — found Zoe Kazan cast as Alice Longabaugh, a hard-luck pioneer on her way to Oregon, possibly to get married.

Her dog President Pierce, who is supposed to be shot as a nuisance, disappears on the prairie. Alice wanders from her wagon train to find him. Mr. Arthur, played by Grainger Hines, wanders after Alice.

In a Coenian contretemps, the two are trapped behind a rise by hostile warriors.  Giving Alice a revolver, Mr. Arthur tells her to avoid rape and torture by shooting herself should things take a turn for the worst. He then starts firing away at the attackers. One wave breaks. “They ain’t going to do this all day. This’ll tell the tale,” says Arthur as another wave comes on.

Finally, he strides toward a last remaining warrior, who appears for a moment to have killed him. But Arthur, a cool one, comes back up, dispatches the attacker, and returns to Alice — only to find that she’d shot herself dead in that split second, when all appeared to be lost.

She got rattled. She despaired. She destroyed herself just when things were about to get better.

If you look closely enough, there’s usually a homespun moral lurking inside even the murkiest Coen brothers story. In a 2013 interview for The New York Times, I asked Joel Coen what could possibly be the lesson in Inside Llewyn Davis, about a few weeks in the life of a slightly obnoxious, failing folk singer.

Coen never missed a beat. “How good you are doesn’t always matter,” he said. “That’s what the movie is about.”

Fair enough. And The Gal Who Got Rattled is about hope — hanging in there. Even if that means another five weeks.

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