Over my time in school, I studied Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey on about six different occasions. When I first discovered O Brother Where Art Thou? in high school, Homer and I had already been well acquainted. To set the story of Odysseus’ long journey home in the depression stricken south was an odd stroke of genius that really works, because in some ways, the old south is as gone and mythical as ancient Greece.
The story follows Everett (George Clooney), a man who is often too smart for his own good. He escapes from a chain gang, still attached to two other men, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson). Everett needs to get home to stop his wife from marrying another man. Instead of the truth, he tells Pete and Delmar that he needs to get the money he stole that landed him in jail before the land is flooded, promising each man a share. The three are set on a long, dangerous journey filled with interesting characters, misadventures and close calls comparable to scenes in The Odyssey. There’s an old soothsayer, treacherous sirens along the river and even a cyclops.
Much in the same way Homer depicts Greece having a change in cultural values, the Coen brothers show a shift as the deep south emerges from the depression. The embrace of radio as mass communication is slowly connecting the rural south. Another level of connectivity is on the way, electricity. And the KKK seems to be losing its power and influence, especially after Everett and the gang crash a meeting.
The music is one of my favorite things about this film. The old timey soundtrack send us back to a simpler time. Growing up on country music, I find this soundtrack perfect and T Bone Burnett’s finest work. I am a Man of Constant Sorrow is one of my favorite songs and you can regularly find me rocking out to it in my car.
O Brother was rightly nominated for the Oscar for best cinematography. The film has a near sepia tone, old and as if the colors had faded into the dustbowl, that suits the setting perfectly. Most shots aren’t too artistic, but focus perfectly on our actors. Really, it’s simple, honest, and faultless. Plus, that underwater moment is really unforgettable, hound dog and all.
Best of all, this film is really funny. Most jokes are a little deadpan and need an outside audience to get them. Seeing Clooney in a hair net repeating, “Damn, we’re in a tight spot,” is hilarious. Delmar’s love for animals, to the point of mistaken identity gets me every time. Many times the dialogue is spot on with bits of quick humor. One of my favorite scenes is when Everett is reunited with three of his daughters: “Kablooey. Nothin’ left but a grease spot on the L&N.” “Damn it, I wasn’t hit by any train!”
O Brother Where Art Thou? is easily my favorite film by the Coen brothers (thus far). The fact that it was only nominated for two Oscars (adapted screenplay and cinematography) breaks my heart. I recommend it to everyone, but a few people especially. If you love The Odyssey or just want to see a different version of it, you have got to see this. If you grew up with tall tales of life in the old south, you may find a few details from your elders. And if you enjoy classic country or bluegrass music, you’ll at least be hooked by the soundtrack.
“You shall see thangs, wonderful to tell. You shall see a… a cow… on the roof of a cotton house, ha. And, oh, so many startlements.”