O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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I’ve seen this film quite a few times, but not in a while. This viewing is probably as close to a fresh perspective as I can get. I always though O Brother, Where Art Thou? was completely hilarious, but also always had trouble discerning what it was about, exactly. But like most myths (it’s loosely based on The Odyssey), it’s about the journey rather than the destination.

Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) has escaped from a chain gang in depression era Mississippi. Still chained to fellow convicts Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro), it seems he’s promised to lead them to a treasure he buried if they escape with him. They go across Mississippi running into all sorts of colorful characters, a black musician named Tommy (Chris Thomas King) who’s “sold his soul to the devil” to learn guitar, a terrorizing bible salesman (John Goodman), George “Baby face” Nelson (Michael Badalucco) a manic bank robber, two opposing gubernatorial candidates Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall) and “Pappy” O’Daniel (Charles Durning), and most important of all, Everett’s ex-wife Penny (Holly Hunter), who’s due to marry a “bona-fide suitor” any minute.

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There’s a line in the movie “Jesus saves, but George Nelson withdraws!” replace that with music and I think you’d hit upon the theme of this film if there is any at all. The Coen Brothers incorporate music so often and so well, and plot-wise it ends up rescuing the characters from a life of crime, that really it seems to be the centerpiece of the film both in form and content. I suppose it’s not technically a musical, but it has enough music to be one. It’s great music too, “The Man of Constant Sorrow” being what sends the Soggy Bottom Boys (the makeshift band the convicts form with Tommy to make some quick cash) to stardom and finally ousts the racist gubernatorial candidate Homer Stokes.

In fact, the way racism is handled in this movie has me thinking of it as a precursor to Django Unchained. It’s very revisionist as to how racism actually worked in the depression-era south, but of course that makes it nicer from a more modern perspective. Not that it is all bright and cheery though, Tommy is not given attention on par with the other three boys and Stokes is only ousted because Mississippi would rather align itself with musicians than those who try to stop them (rather than full out objecting to Stokes’ racism). Still, it’s nice to see some progress at least I suppose.

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I still don’t really know what the Coens were trying to accomplish by setting The Odyssey in the American south, but there’s not doubt that the results are entertaining. I don’t know that it really says anything interesting about either The Odyssey or the south by marrying them together like this, other than that they are mythologizing the south just as well as ancient Greece. Outside of their comparisons as myths, I’m not really sure what they’re going for. Sometimes it just seems that the Coens like to set their stories in distinctive regions of America (the mid west in Fargo, the west in True Grit) and this might just be another example of that, it’s hard for me to tell.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? marks the Coens fifth collaboration with renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins, with as breathtaking results as you’d expect. What makes the cinematography in this film especially unique is the use of digital color grading. This was the first feature film to use this, and it creates the yellowish “old-timey” look of the film you see. The greens of the leaves and grass are almost all eliminated, and instead rendered as yellow, and the rest of the colors in the image (the sky, people, etc…) appear as normal. This goes along way to both establishing the nostalgic atmosphere and time period of the film.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is without a doubt my favorite Coen Brothers film (that I’ve seen thus far). While the exact point of it overall may escape me, I appreciate a lot of things that it’s doing. The soundtrack, cinematography, and of course the classic absurd Coen humor are highlights. This film may be a bit odd and not for everyone, but it’s one of my favorites.

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Don’t quote me on this, but this picture might have some extra color grading!

“It’s a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert review
The New York Times review

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4 responses to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?

  1. Nice review. I wouldn’t call this my favorite Coen brothers film, but this is a great movie for sure and it’s a lot of fun too.

    • Thanks! In all fairness, it was the first Coen Bros movie I saw, so I could be biased on that one. I’m not quite sure it’s their best movie, but it’s the most enjoyable one for me anyway. I respect the Coen Bros a lot but their humor tends to be hit or miss for me. I’m not even sure why, but for some reason this film definitely falls under the hit category.

  2. Great review. This is my personal favorite from the Coen Brothers. I have a theory on why they would set an Odyssey story in depression era Mississippi. Just like after the Trojan war, things were slowly shifting from old ways of brute force to more intellectual ways (radio, electricity and a bit less racism would soon spread through Mississippi). Both Everette and Odysseus could lead the way, but are caught in the transition. Plus, this time and place looks so good on film, I love Roger Deakins’s work.

    • Thanks! Much is made of the transitory nature of the time period, that’s for sure. I suppose that is a good a reason as any to link the South and Ancient Greece, and it makes sense. The cinematography is amazing here, definitely another great job on Deakins’ part.

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