Most people remember “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” for the massive hit soundtrack that the movie spawned but forget that the movie itself is very good. This is the closest that the Coens have come to doing an outright musical. The movie is, uh, incredibly loosely inspired by Homer’s poem “The Odyssey”, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is a quest through 1930s depression era Mississippi. The title of the film comes from the classic movie “Sullivan’s Travels”.
As the film opens, three members of the chain gang are escaping through the southern fields occasionally popping up their heads to awkwardly run in unison. They are brainiac Ulysses Everett McGill (welcome to the Coen filmography George Clooney), Pete (the Coen regular John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson). The latter two are…shall we say…not the sharpest. The quest they are on is to find treasure that Everett supposedly buried and must find the gold before the area is flooded to make a lake.
The Coens again demonstrate their fascination with Americana culture. In “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” there will be a one-eyed traveling Bible salesman (John Goodman, of course), a dark shades wearing Sheriff Cooley(Daniel von Bargen) who stands in as the devil, a blues singer who sells his soul to the devil (a character inspired by blues singer Robert Johnson and portrayed by Chris Thomas King), three sirens bathing while singing on rocks, a stand-in for Babyface Nelson who wields a tommy gun while robbing banks and shooting cows, and a KKK rally complete with orchestrated formations and a flaming cross falling on them at the end of the scene. All in all, a snippet of historical, depression era southern culture done Coen-style.
One thing I have not written about in my reviews is how the Coens, through their movies, often investigate different elements of American culture. “Blood Simple” took place in the heart of Texas. “Raising Arizona” took place in the rural desert. “Miller’s Crossing” was set, often in wooded scenes, in an unnamed northeastern town during prohibition. Beginning in New York City but following a script writer to Hollywood, “Barton Fink” shows the life of a writer’s mind as he interacts with Hollywood producers and gatekeepers. “The Hudsucker Proxy” follows a man coming from the Midwest to New York City for a job. “Fargo” takes place in the barren snowfields of North Dakota. “The Big Lebowski” returns to Los Angeles but shows a distinctly different side then “Barton Fink” reveling in the presence of a washed-up surfer type personality and other weirdos at a bowling alley. The setting of a Coen Bros film might as well be a character itself and a fascinating lens to watch these movies through is by asking what exactly they are saying about American society, culture, and our values.
As a value in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, religion and spirituality take a more central position then any of the brothers other movies. As Everett, Delmar, and Pete are in a forest after escaping from the police, they find themselves surrounded by a church group singing an acappella song in white robes. “As I went down in the river to pray/ Studying about that good old way/And who shall wear the starry crown/ Good Lord, show me the way!” The group walks peacefully down to the river and a preacher begins to baptize the members in a lake. Delmar charges out into the water and gets baptized. As he emerges, he runs back toward Everett and Pete declaring that his sins have all been washed away. Quite a message for a convict. Everett, being a declared man of science, repudiates the baptism but Pete decides to wade in himself at the close of the scene. In other places in the film, Delmar will reference his faith as a reason that he should not participate in unethical or criminal activities (although perhaps not always consistently).
On their journey, the three men even find fame although they don’t realize they have begun a singing sensation until the end when they team up with a gubernatorial candidate. To the masses, they are the “Soggy Bottom Boys” who have a hit single “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” which in real life was also a smash single.
In the final moments of the film, the clashing worldviews between Everett as a man of science and the duo of Pete and Delmar as men of faith comes to a head. Sheriff Cooley is about to arrest them at the spot where they believe they will find the treasure. The men begin to pray to God to get them out of this situation and spare their lives from the murderous sheriff and his scary dog. Even Everett prays for mercy. Suddenly, a big wall of water comes crashing toward them and washes everything away (the authorities making a lake of the area that was referenced earlier in the movie). The three men pop up out of the water, their lives spared. Everett begins to talk about there being a perfect, rational explanation for what has happened. When he sees a cow on the roof of a shack (which was prophesized to the three men earlier) floating by he becomes speechless and perhaps receives a personal revelation that there was more to their rescue then a mere scientific explanation.
“O Brother, Where Art Thou” is the Coens’ near their best. A visionary experience of the depression era south and some of the pop culture figures and groups that define that specific era are all mixed in with a classic tale about a journey (even if very loosely based). Not too mention that Joel and Ethan Coen have mixed in their screwball and occasionally odd humor.
Lester Lauding level: 4.5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):
Fargo (review here)
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Big Lebowski (review here)
Miller’s Crossing (review here)
The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)
Raising Arizona (review here)
Blood Simple (review here)
Barton Fink (Review here)