‘The Mortal Remains’ depicts a quintet of passengers riding in a stagecoach to a mysterious hotel. Two of the passengers, the Englishman and the Irishman, are revealed to be bounty hunters (or “harvesters of souls,” as they put it) while the other three are a trapper, a gambler and an upright religious sort. Each offers a monologue on, essentially, the meaning of life.
As the mood turns somber and the sun sets, changing the lighting from a warm gold to a cool blue, it becomes pretty clear what’s really going on here. The bounty hunters are escorting the other three to their final resting place. The stagecoach is crossing a metaphorical river Styx.
It doesn’t matter that the trapper believes people are “like ferrets,” essentially all the same, or the gambler believes every human being is knowable only to himself, or the religious lady believes humans are separated into the “upright” and the “sinning.” They are all going to the same place.
That place is a hotel called Fort Morgan with carvings framing its entrance of an angel and a goat. Is it purgatory? Merely a stopover before you move on to Heaven or Hell? Or is it the final destination? The film doesn’t say.
The passengers realize where they’re headed when the Irishman, played beautifully by the great Brendan Gleeson, sings a mournful Irish ballad about a dying man. ‘The Unfortunate Lad’ was the inspiration for ‘The Streets of Laredo,’ a cowboy’s lament that might have been sung by Buster Scruggs himself.
Then his partner, the Englishman, launches into a monologue about his method of mesmerizing people with the story of the Midnight Caller before his partner “thumps” them:
“Someone is outside! Knocking! Oh who can it be! Don’t open it, Mother — what living thing would be out in such a storm! You know the story, but people can’t get enough of them, the familiar stories, like little children.”
He goes on, “Because they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose, and we all love hearing about ourselves, over and over. So long as the people in the story are — us, but not us. Not us at the end, especially — the Midnight Caller gets him, never me… I’ll live forever…”
My reading of this segment is that the bounty hunters — the harvesters of souls — are the Coen Brothers themselves. They have told us stories, both in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and throughout their careers, about the funny, sad and often tragic lives of others. And we love hearing those stories because the people in them are us, but not us.
When the coach finally arrives at its destination, the three passengers reluctantly enter the mysterious hotel. The last to go in is the gambler, who pauses at the door with a foreboding look before shrugging and accepting his fate. What choice does he have? What choice do any of us have?
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a meditation on death that plays like a series of late-night yarns. Time and again, the Coens set us up with their master storytelling and then thump us.
Thank you, sirs, I’ll have another.
As I was a-walking one morning of late
Who should I spy but my own dear comrade
Wrapped up in flannel, so hard is his fate
I boldly stepped up to, and kindly did ask him
Why are you wrapped in flannel so white?
My body is injured and sadly disordered
All by a young woman, my own heart’s delight
Oh had she but told me when she disordered me
Had she but told me of it at the time
I might have got salts or pills of white mercury
But now I’m cut down in the height of my prime
Get six pretty maidens to carry my coffin
And six pretty maidens to bear up my pall
And give to each of them, bunches of roses
That they may not smell me as they go along