Saturday, September 28, 2013

Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou?

George Clooney Stars in this Entertaining Coen Brothers Film
Three escaped convicts trek through Depression-era Mississippi to retrieve a buried fortune in this wild and entertaining comedy/adventure.

Joel and Ethan Coen bring their unique brand of filmmaking to the surreal but thoroughly entertaining Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). The film contains the duo's signature idiosyncrasy; you can't mistake it for the work of any other filmmaker. And typical of many Coens Brothers' films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn't stay anchored down to one particular film genre, but rather is a mélange of genres; it's part adventure, part musical comedy, part satire, and part fantasy. The brothers shared directorial duties as well as collaborated on the screenplay, which is based on Homer's epic poem The Odyssey.

The film follows three escaped convicts as the make their way through the backwoods of Mississippi during the Great Depression in 1933. It begins with the ragtag trio escaping from a prison chain gang. The de facto leader of the group is the fast-talking con Ulysses Everett McGill, adeptly played by George Clooney. Everett claims to have $1.2 million that he stole off an armored car stashed away. So the convicts set out on a quest to retrieve the money before they're tracked down by the law. Clooney fits comfortably into his role of the loquacious know-it-all Everett. A roguish backwoods scoundrel, Everett sports a Clark Gable pencil-thin moustache over a crooked smile and slicks his hair back with his ever-handy Dapper Dan hair pomade. However, underneath Everett's slippery, double-dealing facade, he's basically a decent guy.

His two companions are Pete and Delmar. Delmar (played by Tim Blake Nelson) may not be the brightest crayon in the box, but he makes up for his lack of smarts with a strong sense of loyalty and a heart as big as Texas. Nelson plays Delmar with a goofy innocence and sweetness. He's the soul and backbone of the trio. And Coen Brothers regular John Turturro does a splendid job portraying Pete, a surly hillbilly who grumpily follows Everett and Delmar in their quest for the hidden loot.

During their long journey, the three fugitives encounter a slew of peculiar characters and witness some amazing sights and other bizarre occurrences. The Coens infuse many of the scenes with Magical Realism, a common feature in many of their films. There is a scene where the boys are put under a spell by three otherworldly seductresses known as sirens; the men wake up disoriented and are unable to find Pete. Delmar thinks the sirens may have turned Pete into a toad.

The group also encounter an elderly blind railroad man, who's also a prophet. He foretells what will happen to the trio later in their journey. And John Goodman plays an eye-patch-wearing Bible salesman who robs Everett and Delmar. The character has a supernatural quality about him. He doesn't quite seem human and has a very keen sense of smell, almost canine. And he also seems to possess superhuman strength, as he dispatches of Everett and Delmar without even breaking a sweat. Goodman's character is an allusion to Polyphemus the Cyclops from The Odyssey. The blind seer and the sirens were also inspired by Homer's epic poem.
Along their journey, the trio befriend a young black blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson (played by Grammy-winning blues artist and actor Chris Thomas King). The character is based on influential Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson, who, according to urban legend, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for exceptional gifts as a blues player; a similar myth was also applied to Robert Johnson, another great Delta bluesman. Tommy travels with the boys for a spell and even cuts a record with them at a radio broadcast station. The quartet dub themselves "The Soggy Bottom Boys" and receive $10 a piece for their song "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," which later goes on to become a huge hit.
In some ways this film is similar to Raising Arizona, one of the Coen's early films, as it has some of the same homespun, cracker-barrel charm and humor as well as a funny assortment of hicks and hayseeds. One of the funniest characters in the film is Mississippi Governor Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning), who is campaigning for reelection. Durning is hilarious as the cantankerous and opportunistic politician. O'Daniel's sycophantic cronies are equally funny. His character is loosely based on real-life Democratic politician W. Lee O'Daniel, who was the Governor of Texas and a U.S. senator. Stephen Root is also quite funny as the blind proprietor of the radio station.
Music plays a significant role in this film and is almost like character in itself. The are some superb musical sequences throughout the film. For instance, the musical segment of the scene where Delmar and Pete are baptized possesses great beauty. And paradoxically a scene involving the Ku Klux Klan preparing to lynch a black man is quite powerful. The ritual begins with a man singing in a very solemn and haunting fashion. The fact that the preparation for killing an innocent person is given such reference and solemnity makes the scene all the more disturbing and wrenching. Also, the scene where the singing sirens seduce the three men is fantastic. The Coens always manage to find beauty amid the absurd and hellish.
The film also boasts an amazing soundtrack. It's chock of great music that covers a wide range of styles, including bluegrass, folk, gospel, country and blues. The soundtrack took home the coveted Album of the Year award at the 2002 Grammys.

Few filmmakers would be bold enough to meld genres the way the Coen Brothers do in
O Brother, Where Art Thou? and even fewer would have the talent and vision to pull it off as skillfully. Great acting, provocative storyline, interesting characters, inspired sequences and incredible music make this film a wholly enjoyable and unique viewing experience.

(originally published at

O' Brother, Where Art Thou? At Amazon

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