Coen Brothers: The Message of these Mortal Remains

[this is the final of the 10 short reviews I set out to write since September. given how much else is going on, I doubt I’ll be able to continue them into the new year. but that doesn’t mean this site will go defunct! I’ve got a lot to say in the next few months in regards to my upcoming fix-up novel What We See in the Smoke (coming soon from Crowsnest books) and I’ll be sure to say it on here. thank you for reading these short pieces with me, and if you enjoyed them, feel free to let me know!]

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Five chatty strangers share a coach ride across the indistinct landscape of the American Old West, lit by a fading sun,engaging in an argument about whether human beings are like ferrets, God’s Children, or ultimately unknowable creatures. That’s how “These Mortal Remains” begins, the final chapter of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) – a Western anthology film initially conceived as a Netflix series but released as a single event. While I Usually enjoy Coen Brothers movies (with O’Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis being my favourites), I felt the stories presented within the film were treading familiar ground. They all carried the simple message that the west was a hard and violent place, and almost all ended with the protagonist’s death via bullet to the head, hanging, or drowning (with the notable exception Chapter 3, in which Tom Wait’s hapless prospector makes it out alive, albeit still with gunshot wounds). Worse than that, none of those five stories felt very original. They all seemed like pastiches of every other western movie I’d ever seen, full of the familiar, tired tropes.

And then the final episode began. Once again,all the characters were caricatures – so much so that they are even credited as their archetypes. The isolated Trapper,the prudish Lady, the rude Frenchman on one side of the coach, and the two bounty hunters: the Irishman and Englishman (who from the mustache to the walking stick is Edgar Allan Poe, played by Jonjo O’Neill) on the other. But it’s fun – a series of silly monologues on the nature of humanity and some folksy singing from the Irishman And Englishman. But then as the Lady has a panic attack from anger, and the Frenchman shouts at the coachman to stop, things change. Suddenly it’s noticeable just how grey and dim the light has become, the black robes and huge brimmed hat of the faceless coachman become something altogether more sinister as the English man declares dryly and tiredly “He never stops.” In the dark, the certainty of the matter is unclear. Are the English and Irishman”reapers, harvesters of souls” as they claim? Or two more bounty hunters as the Trapper assumes. Are they all on a coach into town? Or three dead souls on their way to the afterlife? Still, everything seems like something I’ve seen before – only now I’m beginning to understand why, and it brought me back to Linda Hutcheon’s Theory of Adaptation. The Coen Brothers aren’t creating a “known adaptation” (Hutcheon 121) of a previous film, but they are still creating a story “born of other stories” (2).

The Englishman tells people stories, and the Irishman kills them while they’re distracted. He begins “the story of the midnight caller,” and it’s clear that his fellow passengers have heard it before, just as we have seen the stories that appear in Buster Scruggs before. The Coen brothers, through their Englishman/Mr.Poe avatar, smile at the camera. “You know the story, but people can’t get enough of them, they connect the stories to themselves.” For the Coen Brothers,the doomed archetypes of old Western heroes are “us but not us”, they are the version of ourselves – struggling, uncertain ­– that we can watch die over and over, and enjoy it with popcorn. “The midnight caller gets him, never me” Poe says, as the Irishman (the underserved but excellent Brendan Gleeson) flashesthe viewer a knowing glance. It’s a gleeful and unnerving scene, and it serves as the thesis of the film. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs knows where it belongs in the genre of Westerns.

We watch our protagonists struggle and die,even as we feel we’ve seen these stories before. The Coen Brothers make us watch, through all six stories, as these familiar archetypes try to make sense of what it means to die. The Coen brothers want viewers to feel that there is some greater meaning in the genre of the Western that their characters find in their brutal deaths, but they don’t want us to know what that is. It’s a movie about the Western genre, more than a movie about what it’s like to watch a Western,more than it is a movie to be placed alongside the classics it invokes. So the film is only ever as good as its viewer thinks of Westerns, and this is at once it’s greatest strength and greatest flaw. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Coen’s latest effort, I think it might be that homages: even the most lovingly and expertly crafted ones, have limits.

Work cited:

Hutcheon, Linda, and Siobhan Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation.2nd ed., Routledge, 2013.Coen, Ethan and Joel. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Annapurna Pictures.