Today we will take one of the Coen Brothers’ stories, ‘Meal Ticket’, from their recent film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) to explore its structure and symbols. We will focus on the third tale about The Artist and The Impresario/The Irishman.

Recently, the Coen Brothers (Joel & Ethan) announced that Ethan doesn’t want to make movies anymore, according to their music composer Carter Burwell. So, let’s analyse a bit of the film duo.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Screenplay

Click on the image to read the screenplay. For clarity’s sake, we will be referencing it as well as posting images of it during the analysis.

Just in the beginning of the screenplay for this tale we can find a synopsis of the whole film:

A traveler in an antique land.” In the six stories of the film, all the protagonist are travelers: a singer with great aim (perhaps not always), a bank robber, the artist and the impresario, a gold seeker, a woman traveling West to an uncertain place and two strangers in a carriage.

The tale’s theme is perhaps mercy and compassion with Shakespearean style monologues —what’s written in the book is from The Merchant of Venice— and we take three distinctive perspectives (or POV): the Artist, the Impresario and the public.

Structure of Meal Ticket

In order to establish the structure, we need to be aware of the protagonists’ desires or objectives. What do they want?

  • The Impresario or the Irish: make money.
  • The Artist (Edwin Horatio Harrison): an armless and legless man who wants to recite the poem to more and more public so the Impresario would earn money and wouldn’t get rid of him.

Remeber the quote in the book: “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” The Irish didn’t take pity on poor Horatio, to him the Artist was just a meal ticket. He lied to the public when he said he had found him “on the streets of London, England. Armless, legless, rest assure. Motherless and penniless.”

Symbols in Meal Ticket

Another way to analyse the story is to focus on the symbols used by the Coen Brothers to emphasise the story’s meaning. They’re used as some kind of set-ups and pay-offs, and you may call them image system, motifs or theme devices, etc. However, this is subjective and object of interpretation.

The water as death. They take an element of the nature which benefits human beings to transform it into the worst nightmare for Horatio. The tale starts with a horse-drawn cart going through mountains near a shallow stream, the snow, the Irish song about a woman thrown to the river until the Irishman throws the rock into the river to see if Horatio would drown.

The symbol evolves from a “shallow stream” to a small river whose “fast-moving water boils and gurgles”.

The wind as a symbol of lonelines. In moments of solitude, the wind invades the scene. In the last monologue Horatio confronts the wind. Even he is described in the screenplay as an “air-sawing Shakespearian actor”.

The costumes. From the very first time, we see the Irishman is not someone to trust as he wears a black hat. It’s a symbol repeated during the entire film and even Buster Scruggs laughs at it. A way the Coen Brothers found to ridicule this cliché in Westerns.

Finally, the eyes. From the surprised audience when they see the armless and legless Artist, Horatio’s penetrating and full of light eyes, the eyes of a bored public, the gaze of the Irishman to the chicken, the look in Horatio’s face when he realises he will die. It’s interesting to underline the contrast between the audience and the Irishman attitudes in the screenplay.

In short, these symbols are a fine way to see how the story and its meaning progress.