If you want to get your typical film geek riled up, an easy method is to bring up the movies of the Coen brothers. Most people can’t agree on the merits of each of their films, much less on their careers, as a whole. Will their new opus, a period musical yet, change anyone’s mind? Can’t say. All I can say is that my favorite Joel and Ethan Coen movie used to be “Miller’s Crossing”, now it’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Like most of their films, this one is made to evoke a specific time and place and the plot device that launches the story is a doomed criminal scheme. In this case, the location is Mississippi during the 1930’s. Our criminal mastermind is the silver-tongued, glass-jawed Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney, for once in a very un-Clooney like part). Incarcerated, Everett convinces the pair of limited intellects on his chain gang, Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro), to make a run for it. He informs them that he will share the hidden loot from the bank heist that landed him in prison if they will help him go home to recover it before a new dam can flood its location. If only it were that easy.
With Joel and Ethan, the final destination is never as important as how you get there. Much of that journey is shaped by their liberal appropriation of elements and ideas from real life and the brothers’ favorite movies and novels. Might as well start with the most obvious one, the title. If you’ve seen Preston Sturges’ 1942 “Sullivan’s Travels,” you might remember that it was about a director of popular comedies who desperately wanted to make an IMPORTANT film about the COMMON MAN to be called, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” To research his masterpiece, Sullivan dresses like a hobo and leaves his money behind to live the lifestyle of the down and out. Reality bursts his bubble of pretension almost immediately.
Though Everett is a con artist, not a filmmaker, he too is neither as smart or clever as he thinks he is. His reality check is shaped by a drastically different source, as hinted by his name, Homer’s “The Odyssey.”
Yep, the brothers have loosely adapted “The Odyssey” to the Depression-era American South. The similarities become more obvious as the movie goes along. The original Ulysses was also kind of a con man (that Trojan Horse was his idea). Instead of jail, it was the anger of the Gods that left him imprisoned on an island for ten years, before he can attempt the long return home to his wife and family. The journeys in both versions are episodic. For the old-school Ulysses, the trip breaks up into smaller tales of the legends of ancient Greece. For Everett, the Coens use his travels as an excuse to explore both the music and mythology of the South. This is probably why the brothers wanted to make this movie in the first place.
Everett and his pals encounter their own versions of the legendary sirens and a Cyclops (John Goodman, as a one-eyed travelling salesman). Among their other transplanted obstacles is Cooley (Daniel Von Bargen), a mystically evil tracker determined to return them dead or alive to the prison farm.
While these bits are usually at least clever, the best segments feature figures lifted directly from Southern history. George “Babyface” Nelson gives the boys a ride. He’s not such a bad guy, except that he hates his nickname and he’s completely insane. The Ku Klux Klan are an active presence and menace. Though none of our heroes are black, one of their frequent traveling companions is. They first pick up Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) at the crossroads, moments after he traded his soul to the devil for his guitar prowess. Many people, particularly critics have presumed this is supposed to actually refer to Blues artist Robert Johnson, but the real-life Tommy preceded him with legends of his guitar skills and how he got them.
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is amazing, but it would be little more than an intellectual exercise if it were not for one element yet to discuss, the music. Country, Blues, Bluegrass, Gospel, Negro Spirituals; every kind of sound natural to the setting is at least touched upon. Sometimes a performance is just a natural element of a character’s activity onscreen. Sometimes a group will abruptly break into a song out of nowhere that provides a counterpoint to their action. Whatever the case, the collected music here is the purest expression of emotion and spirituality for its performers and the lifeblood of the film.
Now, if you don’t have an affinity for the setting or the music, I’m not sure how well you will connect with this movie. Hey, it’s the Coen brothers. They’re never going to be for everybody. Like David Lynch, they’re too often accused of creating their characters only for ridicule or humiliation. In neither case is it true. It’s obvious from their films’ warmth that they have nothing but affection for all of their deluded losers. They only force their main characters to deal with the repercussions of their actions. If it occurs to them to pull the heads out of their a***s, everything might turn out okay. If not, somebody rents a woodchipper. Either way is entertaining, and that’s the most important detail of all.