Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Holly Hunter, John Goodman
With the full brunt of the law still bearing down on them, the three small time crooks decide to band together as Ulysses promises the others that he knows the whereabouts of a fortune in buried treasure.
This fools errand leads the three hapless vagabonds through the American South during the era of the Great Depression. They come across a colourful and eclectic cast of misfits including a talented blues singer who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar-riffing talent, beautiful sirens that may possess the power to turn man into frog, a terrifying one eyed preacher and the KKK.
O Brother Where Art Thou? released to mixed reviews back in 2000 but I believe it is now rightly looked upon as a Coen Brothers classic and one of the definitive cinematic showcases of Southern folklore. Its soundtrack – featuring the Soggy Bottom Boy’s hit song Man of Constant Sorrow and Alison Krauss’ Down To River – received rave reviews and was a huge success in its own right.
The title credits of O Brother Where Art Thou? claims that the film is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey but not unlike Fargo’s deceptive claim to be based on true events, the Coen Brothers have stated that they haven’t actually read Odyssey. Instead, the film unfolds as a series of loosely connected sketches, playing out like the twelve trials of Hercules as Ulysses, Pete and Delmar face one bizarre turn after another.
Many of these moments will feel familiar to the audience – remember the prophetic blind man who pushes a handcar on a set of train tracks or the guitar playing prodigy who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his talent. They are Southern fables whose origins I can’t specifically place, but it’s a delight to see them all mixed together in a single film and so vividly brought to life by the talented cast of performers in this film.
With a film like O Brother that has such a meandering and ramshackle story, it is the quirky and loveable characters that inhabit its world that makes the whole thing shine. This was the first film where the Coen Brothers partnered with George Clooney and it is a rousing success. His performance as the highfalutin hair-cream obsessed huckster Ulysses fits so neatly with the Coen Brothers sensibilities that he would essentially go on to play the same character three times over as a divorce lawyer in Intolerable Cruelty, an adulterer in Burn After Reading and as a vain Golden Age movie star in Hail, Caesar!
Clooney is ably accompanied by John Turturro who plays the perpetually angry Pete and Tim Blake Nelson as the sweet natured half-wit Delmar. They are a trio of loveable losers, forever on the precipice of making the big score but always coming undone by a twist of rotten luck or simply their own hubris.
O Brother Where Art Thou? is a film set in a dusty, rough hewn bygone era and yet it looks and sounds like a million bucks thanks to the work of Roger Deakins’ fantastic cinematography which beautifully captures the rustic charm of the American South. The film’s two major set pieces remain impressive to this day for their sense of scale and scope. The singing congregation performing the baptism at the lake (memorably accompanied by Alison Krauss’ Down to the River) and the all-singing, all-dancing Klansman rally which is simultaneously mesmerizing and absurd.
In a career spanning 21 films to date, the Coen Brothers have never produced an out and out musical but at times they have tapped into a love of music and interwoven it through their films (think The Big Lebowski, Inside Llewyn Davis and Hail, Caesar!).
O Brother Where Art Thou? is also fondly remembered for its soundtrack and the Soggy Bottom Boy’s impromptu performance of Man of Constant Sorrow serves as a key plot point in the film that transforms the escape convicts into folk music superstars. O Brother’s climactic scene at the political rally in town remains one of my favourite musical moments in the Coen Brothers catalogue. It remains my hope and wish that one day Joel and Ethan have a crack at doing a full blooded musical.
Revisiting O Brother Where Art Thou? today, I found the film has aged handsomely. It is an entertainingly absurd, funny and sweet natured film full of affection for its characters – even if they are mostly two bit criminals. The film exists in a strange, otherworldly imagining of the American South where poverty, opportunism and mysticism blend together. It is one of the weirdest road movies ever made and the Coen Brothers at their creative best.