A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

August 10, 2010

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Hot damn, but I do love this movie. I may have mentioned in the past how much I enjoy the peculiar and wonderful work of Joel and Ethan Coen. If not, well let me state right now that I cannot get enough of their particular brand of genius. This movie is a great example of why. As with Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Fargo and every other Coen film this movie is difficult to categorise. It has comedic elements – slapstick, running gags, and plenty of great laughs. It has drama, tension and suspense. And it has a brilliant soundtrack that swept the Grammys the year that it came out.

The concept behind this film is a sort of transposition of Homer’s Odyssey to depression era Mississippi, but really that’s just the bare framework upon which the plot is hung. There are references to the lotus eaters, the cyclops, the sirens and such, but they’re only one level of the many clever stories bound together here.

Ulysses Everett McGill is an escaped convict, who with his two chain gang cohorts spend the entire movie wending his way back home. His gang consists of Pete and Delmar, and later Tommy. I could try to summarize their adventures, attempt to list all the tight spots they get into, but doing so wouldn’t really explain what it is about the movie that is so magical. For that I need to attempt to describe the soul and spirit of the work… a task that I fear I may not be up to.

I can start, I suppose, with the soundtrack. This movie is, in a subtle way, actually a musical. It uses a collection of folk songs, spiritual ballads and old-timey music to tell the tale, and pretty much every scene is set to one song or another. But unlike a typical musical, where the cast burst into song and you kind of make-believe that they’re unaware of it, the music in this movie is integrated into the tale. Nobody (with the exception of the sirens I suppose) really sings their lines. Instead there are songs taking place in and around the scenes. Even when there are no songs characters in the movie are usually picking on a guitar or a banjo to fill the quiet spaces.

One effect of this concentration on the music is that the movie has a very leisurely feel to it at times. The Coens have the strength of their convictions to allow the songs to play through in full most of the time, so rather than racing through a scene to get to the next plot point the movie ambles. It takes its sweet time and allows each scene or adventure to play itself in full. I’d liken it to a walking tour of a museum or such, where you are given time at each exhibit or diorama to fully appreciate it before you move on.

Another strength of the movie is the spectacular writing. Everett is one of those verbose characters who will never say something curtly that might be extemporised upon in a more loquacious manner. I’d imagine that he was an absolute joy to write, and George Clooney does a brilliant job delivering all of his lengthy monologues. You also have Pete, played by John Tuturro – a Coen Brother mainstay who I always used to associate with his giant tower of funny hair (although he’s shorn almost completely bald here.) Pete is the super-ego to Everett’s ego. He’s all bottled rage and emotional outbursts. John plays him with a mad wide-eyed stare and exceptionally heavy southern drawl. And there’s Delmar, the id, who operates almost without thought and is delightfully simple and trusting. This was the first role I remember seeing Tim Blake Nelson in, and my love of the character of Delmar, along with his brilliant performance, has inextricably linked the character and the actor in my mind. Every time I see Tim in another movie I think to myself “hey! There’s Delmer.” It’s a little unfair to him I suppose, but it really is such a charming performance.

Rounding out the group you have Tommy, a guitar player who has sold his soul to the devil at a crossroad at midnight so that he can play guitar. Like Winston Zeddmore before him he feels almost tacked on to the group, and sadly he is relegated most of the time to the position of a plot device. Interestingly, considering that there are definite spiritual tones to the movie in a lot of places, the action of selling his soul is treated as pretty much a non-issue. The devil plays prominently in the movie – a frightening and unstoppable sheriff who pursues the characters throughout the film. But Tommy doesn’t appear to be damned by his interaction with the devil, although he seems resigned most of the time to an inevitable doom in his future.

Besides the leads there are a whole cavalcade of other wonderful characters. There’s Governor Pappy O’Daniel, played by Charles Durning of Muppet Movie fame, and his little cadre of yes men and sycophants. There’s the devil, the cyclops (here a huge bible salesman), and Pappy’s slimy but slick gubernatorial rival Homer Stokes. There’s the blind prophet and the blind radio host. There’s Everett’s shrewish wife Penny, played by Holly Hunter (and it’s a joy to see her again after so recently having watched Rising Arizona.) There’s bank robber George Nelson (don’t call him Babyface.) It’s just a movie packed with outrageous and eccentric characters and every actor leaps completely and without reservation into their role. Under less deft direction than that of Joel and Ethan it might have come off as too over-the-top and cheesy, but they’ve created their own little world here and it all works perfectly. In short it’s a movie absolutely filled with strange and memorable moments.

I feel like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of this film. It’s so deep and layered, and at the same time so light and airy… it defies every convention and rule of film-making. I could watch it again right now, and I know that even after just having seen the whole thing through I would find new revelations within. And of course now I have the sound track stuck in my head again. I’ve got to go find the CD and put it in my iPod for tomorrow’s commute.

August 10, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , ,


  1. This film gives one the opportunity to play “Spot Stephen Root“. He’s in everything, but is so plastic that I never realize it’s him.

    Comment by David | August 12, 2010 | Reply

    • I know! Amanda and I both loved his performance in this film (his crazy blind eye look is fantastic) and I commented to her as we watched this that he was also in Finding Nemo.

      Comment by tanatoes | August 12, 2010 | Reply

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