A man looks out of the window of a coach in which he is travelling, whilst the sun is setting behind the dunes. Another passenger sings. It is the opening of The Mortal Remains, the sixth and final episode of the western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, created for Netflix by the Coen brothers and winner of the Golden Osella Award for best screenplay at the 75th Venice International Film Festival. In six episodes the anthology film revisits all the cornerstones of the American western: duels between gunslingers, saloons full of brawling drunkards and dangerous journeys in coaches. In revisiting the genre the film provides six different perspectives on death.
During twenty minutes filled with a dense and comical dialogue between the five passengers in the coach, the sun gradually disappears over the horizon. The light inside changes from orange, to the greenish hues of twilight and finally the blue of a gloomy night. Nightfall could pass unobserved, simply as a natural process, but it carries the theme of the whole episode.
If light tells of the passing of time, can it also tell the advancement of our life
Changing light conditions are the most immediate indicator of days going by: for millennia instruments to measure time, such as sundials, have made use of the light of the sun and the shadows cast. If light tells of the passing of time, can it also tell the advancement of our life? In theory it cannot, because the sun dies every night, but then punctually rises again the next morning, whilst we don’t come back from death. In actual fact the single day, with a beginning and, alas, an end, is a typical metaphor of life, and one which can be found at the heart of The Mortal Remains.
About half-way through the episode, when the atmosphere of the journey takes on the hues of a horror, we sense that three of the five passengers are travelling to the afterlife. The other two, who say they are bounty hunters, are actually reapers and ferrymen of souls. The setting of the sun accompanies the approach to the final destination. Distracted by a few minutes of dialogue and quarrelling, we don’t notice the changes in the light: it’s only when the coach plunges back into silence that we notice that the scene has slipped into night and we start suspecting that there is a hidden meaning behind the sunset.
The suspicion is soon confirmed by the conversation in the coach, that turns from the mundane to the disturbing, with the two bounty hunters who start describing their killing techniques: taking the victim by surprise, after having distracted them by telling them a story.
(Screenshot from The ballad of Buster Sgruggs © Netflix)