O Brother, Where Art Thou?
by Jon Bastian
A perfect blending of cast, story, cinematography and music as the Coen Brothers reset Ulysses in Mississippi.
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The short version of this review: Joel and Ethan Coen’s amazing track record remains unbroken. Once again, they work cinema magic, giving us a funny and finely crafted film that works on seventeen levels at once. See it. See it twice.
Now, the long version.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is purported (by the Coens themselves, in the credits) to be based on Homer’s epic story of Ulysses’ long journey home, Odyssey. Like many things the Coens claim, this must be taken with a grain of salt. Remember the “true story” upon which they based Fargo? It actually wasn’t, they just said so in the credits. This time around, they sort of pull the same trick, but that doesn’t make O Brother any less of a film. If you don’t know Homer’s Odyssey from Homer Simpson, you’ll still enjoy the movie. If you do know the Odyssey, you’ll enjoy watching the many, many ways that it is not an adaptation. In fact, its story is frequently the exact opposite of the original.
I don’t want to give anything away, but one short example will suffice. In the original, Ulysses gets into a boxing match and breaks his opponent’s jaw with one punch. In the Coen brother’s version, Ulysses gets his clock cleaned.
The vaguest outline of Homer is still there — Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) is trying to get home with his two companions, Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson). Ulysses’ goal is to get there before his wife, Penny (Holly Hunter) can remarry. The trio has just escaped from a Mississippi chain gang, on a mission to retrieve a buried fortune before the TVA program turns the valley it’s in into an artificial lake. Of course, that’s not easy when you’re chained together and wearing black and white stripes, and it just gets weirder when a blind man on a railroad hand-truck predicts that the fortune they’ll get will be a lot different than the fortune they seek. Along the way, they encounter many strange people and things, including a trio of sirens (Mia Tate, Christy Taylor and Musetta Vander), a one-eyed bible salesman (John Goodman) and an embattled governor (Charles Durning). They also have a brief and very weird encounter with manic-depressive bank robber George “Baby Face” Nelson (Michael Badalucco), meet a guitar player who claims to have sold his soul to the devil for his talent (newcomer Chris Thomas King, who also contributed to the film’s score), and have a little run-in with the local Ku Klux Klan.
Some of the parallels to events from the Odyssey are obvious. Some are not. Durning’s character’s name is Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel, governor of Mississippi, and so a king in a sense. There’s an early visit with a deceitful swineherd, a revival meeting/baptism (Lotus eaters, anyone?), rumors of Ulysses’ death and a bit of non-divine intercession that has “Poseidon” written all over it. Missing from the source is Ulysses’ son, Telemachus, his encounter with Nausika, Circe (but there is a pig), quite possibly Scylla and Charybdis (although, metaphorically, they may be depicted as a burning barn), Athena’s divine intervention and Ulysses’ seven-year sojourn with Kalypso — although, again, this latter may be hiding in that chain gang, who are first seen singing, if not a calypso song, then something akin to it. If you know the source and would be upset by any of these omissions, my advice is to get over it and enjoy the movie. If you don’t know who any of the above characters are, it won’t matter.
I can’t help but suspect that the Coen brothers have once again decided to pull their audience’s legs — viz the made-up true story behind Fargo. There are just enough references to the classics to have an uninitiated audience smiling at themselves for getting them, but so little resemblance to the original story that the Coens can have their private laugh at people who think they have just seen The Odyssey. I think the point of the exercise is this: don’t believe everything you see or are told. Verify the sources, look into the facts, then decide for yourself.
Beyond that, it’s only a movie, but a damn good one, and Clooney holds it all together with a brilliant performance. Here, he has a definite Clark Gable quality, and even a little resemblance to the man, while frequently bluffing his way through situations that don’t turn out quite as he intended. He’s ably abetted by Turturro, whose character must have thrown away the handle he flew off of, and Nelson, who projects just the right sweet-faced honesty and gullibility here that you feel sorry he’s fallen in with the other two. He’s an actor with a great future ahead of him, perhaps never as a leading man, but definitely as the next Steve Buscemi.
The rest of the cast is universally perfect, right down to the last extra. I don’t know where the Coens found these people, but they all look like they walked out of WPA photos. Standouts are Frank Collison as Turturro’s cousin, a man who looks like he’d be more comfortable sleeping with the hogs than eating them. NewsRadio’s Stephen Root again plays a radio station owner, albeit a blind one whose useless eyes point in every possible direction. Ray McKinnon casts the proper smarmy and pretentious air as Penny’s suitor, complete with pimp moustache and, as some folk would say, “a mouth like a hen’s arse.” John Goodman is just plain scary as the Cyclops, evil cousin to the homicidal salesman he played in Barton Fink.
It’s icing on the cake that the film is breathtaking to look at, shot in muted hues on dusty landscapes that reek of the time and place. There are several set pieces that linger long after the end credits. When our heroes encounter the Sirens, the sequence is one of the most compelling things I’ve ever seen on celluloid. We fully understand exactly why these men would be drawn by the women’s song, which is as beautiful as they are. Wisely, director Joel Coen takes all the time in the world to build the moment. Later, a peak into an intricately choreographed Klan rally is simultaneously frightening and grimly funny, the hooded evil before us subtly mocked by the marchers not quite being in lockstep but trying damn hard. Finally, a flash flood sequence is shot almost entirely POV and, again, Joel Coen takes as much time as he needs to let us watch the slowly drifting detritus before we resurface.
I should mention that there are two cow stunts in the movie that are incredibly well done, though disturbing, especially if you’re an animal lover. Don’t worry, both moments were digitally created, although I dare you to spot the artifice in one. The ASPCA couldn’t, and had to be walked step-by-step through the effects process before they gave their seal of approval. Anyway, I mention this only by way of defending it: classical Greek literature is full of animal sacrifice. It’s an essential part of who those people were, yet, to us it’s both distant and (I hope) unconscionable. Okay, sure, they killed a cow for Zeus, but there’s little impact. I think the Coen brothers were trying to include their animal sacrifices but wanted to make them disturbing to a modern audience. At that, they have succeeded, but remember the context, and that, truly, no animals were harmed.
Rounding out the perfect performances and stunning look of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the music, which is a character in the film. Much of it is traditional, all of it is period and everything is recorded in sound as thick and rich as the visuals. The sound is part of what gives those Sirens their impact, yet all we’re hearing are three perfectly harmonized women’s voices (Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris). Elsewhere, we pass through the middle of a giant chorus as the Baptists walk to the water, are treated to a toe-tapping tune performed by our heroes and soul-selling guitar player, and get an incredibly rich mix of baritone and bass accompanied by the clanking chorus of chain gang hammers breaking rocks. Even the Klan rally comes with music — the chilling “O Death,” as sung by Ralph Stanley. This is a world that’s heard as much as seen, and the filmmakers have not skimped in either regard.
All that said, I can’t recommend that anybody see this movie — once. See it twice, the first time to just enjoy the story and the telling, and the second to catch all the symbolism and double meanings and in-jokes and all those other things the Coens love to do.
And love is the operative word here — these guys just love to make movies and it shows in every frame. In sixteen years, they haven’t missed once; once again, they bring us a film you can’t miss.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles, and a playwright and screenwriter working in the TV trade.
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