Top 100 American Movie Quotes of the 21st Century: #87

The actor:James Franco
The character:Cowboy
The film:The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The quote:“First time?”

I have The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as a top-10 Coen Brothers film, which is to say that it’s in the top half. As far as I can tell, this is not a terribly popular opinion. I know why. I don’t object to the film working in chapters, for one thing, and for another, I tend to like the chapters that most people are less fond of. I was enraptured of “The Meal Ticket” where a lot of people were repulsed; “The Mortal Remains” really worked on me rather than being to stagey in the stagecoach; I think “The Girl Who Got Rattled” is especially strong even though it’s not for most people. In the intervening years, Tom Waits and “All Gold Canyon” have taken on the most popular position, though for me it’s perhaps the least interesting, maybe even less interesting than “Near Algodones.”

“Near Algodones” has a redeeming virtue, and it’s this one spectacular punchline to an old joke, that one about the appointment in Samarra. The cowboy has already been rescued from a hanging once, accidentally by a group of Indians who attack his judges-juries-executioners, and purposefully by a rustler. About to be executed for a crime that he isn’t actually guilty of, having discovered that his escape from one death is merely to be condemned to one a little less just than before, the cowboy can sneer at the blubbering man next to him like the n00b rube he is. “First time?” he says. These are famous last words.

In Follies, the Sondheim musical which has practically nothing else in common with “Near Algodones” besides this one line, Phyllis provides a mathematical glimpse into her thinking about her marriage.

Ben, do you know, according to statistics, I can’t expect to die until 1995? That’s one long time, and I’ve been considering what my options are. Hell, even on the gallows there are choices. You can take it like a man or cry a lot.

If you’re the kind of person who wonders how you’ll react when it comes to your execution (no, not your death, just your execution), then this question has surely been posed in your mind. Will you take it like a man or will you cry a lot? I think what’s really sweet for the cowboy in this chapter of Buster Scruggs is that he knows he’s going to be able to take it like a man, which he does. It’s a comfort to know that you’re not going to embarrass yourself in front of a hostile crowd before you go.

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