Movie Review – O Brother, Where Art Thou?

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Directed by Joel Coen

The Coen Brothers were coming off some iconic films by the time the new millennium rolled around. In the 1990s, they established themselves with pictures like Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski. Their first entry into the 2000s was a big-budget comedy based on Homer’s Odyssey. It was just the sort of strange left turn their entire career has been filled with. The result was a decent movie, most certainly their most outstanding technical achievement but definitely not one of my favorites in their filmography.

Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) leads his fellow chain gang members, Pete and Delmar (John Turturro & Tim Blake Nelson), to escape. Ulysses has told them about a treasure he buried in a region that is about to be flooded with the construction of a new dam. They begin traveling across the Mississippi countryside, encountering numerous people and situations. They get ratted out by Pete’s kin, Delmar gets baptized, they record a hit song, encounter alluring sirens, get attacked by a cyclops, and more. Ulysses ends up finding out his wife and kids are moving on without him, and he’s got to find a way to set things right as the clock ticks down.

I was in college when this film came out, and I remember it being a major mainstream release. Going to school in Nashville, aka Music City, the movie has a tremendous amount of hype. This was due to the soundtrack, a mix of contemporary country singers and archival recordings compiled and arranged by producer T-Bone Burnett. The music was the big selling point, but I don’t think it isn’t a big part of the overall movie after watching it again. The subplot about the trio of criminals becoming famous as The Soggy Bottom Boys does play an important role, but the film is more a picaresque about Ulysses and friends getting into and out of trouble. The story moves at a rapid pace, so you never drift off because something is always about to happen.

This is one of the best looking Coen Brothers, helped by their particular and sparing use of digital effects. The entire film is washed over with a sepia tone to appear like a moving faded photograph. It’s a perfect use of the effect to give the feeling we’re watching something made a long time ago, and it adds an almost fairy tale veneer to the American South. Some select uses of digital effects for animals and a flooding and almost everything holds up twenty years later, showing the Coens understood that the time’s tech shouldn’t be overused or the seams will show.

In the body of the Coens’ work, I think O Brother works alongside pictures like Raising Arizona or Intolerable Cruelty. It’s a light farce, evoking the name of Preston Sturges. In fact, O Brother Where Art Thou is the movie that the protagonist in Sullivan’s Travels is planning to direct. The Coens mused that they thought of this as the very movie that would have been made, and some scenes evoke that older picture. A chain gang is marched into a theater to watch the film as a reward, just like the Black church scene in Sullivan’s. I don’t think O Brother is as funny as Sturges’s best work, but it is a beautiful tribute.

Of course, the film is populated with wonderful character actors turning supporting roles into great background details. John Goodman plays a small role as an eye-patch wearing Bible salesman with nefarious machinations. Charles Durning is fantastic as Pappy O’Daniel, a state politician, feels the pressure from a reform candidate. He is the perfect mix of Huey Long finding his own brand on populism while not knowing how to gladhand the populace well. Holly Hunter plays Ulysses’s wife Penny, who is staid in her rejection of her husband. While it is a small role, I think Ray McKinnon as Penny’s suitor Waldrip is excellent. He’s this wonderful lanky figure that you would expect to see in a Sturges film. 

I didn’t really get much more out of O Brother on this watch than previous ones. It’s a perfectly good Coen Brothers picture that makes a fantastic entry point for people who are new to their work. It’s very accessible and doesn’t really go into the darker themes that I enjoy in their wor

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