The Coen Project Part 8: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Moving forward into the post-millennium era of the Coens’ work, I wasn’t expecting any of the more recent films to affect me as deeply as the one-two cinematic punch of Fargo and The Big Lebowski, but I was floored by revisiting 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou. The Coens’ films are frequently accused of being cynical, sardonic genre pastiches, but O Brother is anything but — it’s a warm, beautifully simple American fable with dialogue that’s (to me) even more quotable than Lebowski. More than that, it’s a film about the stories we tell ourselves, and the roles those stories play in our lives.

We open on three travelers: Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), and Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) , recent Mississippi chain gang escapees on the hunt for a “treasure” that Everett, their de facto leader, supposedly hid before his incarceration.

As the shackled runaways make their way across a wheat field to hop onto a moving train, we’re shown a title card reading “Based upon the Odyssey by Homer”, a work of epic poetry that Joel and Ethan later copped to never having read. But as with any great myth, it’s the characters and set pieces that matter, and the Coens pull the major ones into their story. The hero, embodied by the fast-talking compulsive hair pomade user Everett, is trying to get back to his wife and children. Along the way he and his companions encounter a blind prophet, sirens, and a cyclops (in the form of a eye-patched John Goodman) among their many trials. The mythic backbone of the script makes for a linear and episodic narrative, the most thinly plotted of the Coens’ films so far. This doesn’t make O Brother feel aimless — the characters are so specific and lived-in that we’re fully invested in their actions and what happens to them. This is thanks in large part to the performances of the three leads.

John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson disappear into their respective roles as the desperate, combative Pete and the sweet, childlike Delmar. Turturro in particular is almost unrecognizable with his dead-on dialect, contorted facial expressions, and a physicality absent from most of his prior roles. Many are critical of George Clooney’s highly mannered, highly Clooney-esque performance and barely attempted Southern accent, but the tone of the film is just surreal enough that his ahistorical manner of speaking doesn’t take us out of the story. And it’s inarguably funny — each phrase that comes out of Everett’s mouth is a carefully composed, linguistically delightful one-liner. It also feels appropriate for a mythical hero to be brought to life by the most iconic American movie star of the time.

The world these characters inhabit is not the real Depression-era South, but the South of literature, myth, and collective American memory, peopled by the characters of our stories, both true and fictional. The three men team up with a black guitarist named Tommy, a facsimile of Robert Johnson, the real 1930’s bluesman who legendarily sold his soul the the devil in exchange for his musical abilities. They later encounter a bank robber with self-esteem issues who’s known by the locals as Baby Face Nelson — his insecurities may have been invented by the Coens for laughs, but George Nelson was a real-life public enemy number one, and a partner of John Dillinger.

Music has always played an important role in the Coens films, most notably in The Big Lebowski, where the lyrics of the songs curated by T-Bone Burnett served to highlight the film’s thematic content. In O Brother this is taken a step further — the music doesn’t just comment or counter what’s on screen, it’s central to the narrative. Upon hearing that they could be paid money to sing into a can, the three convicts and Tommy become The Soggy Bottom Boys and record Man of Constant Sorrow, which loosely recounts Everett’s Odyssean plight. The resulting record goes Depression-era viral, selling out in every general store in Mississippi. In the film’s climax, a performance of the song brings voters together against a klansman politician who rants against the integrated band.

This one wouldn’t embed but it’s the only complete version of the scene I could find: youtube

In real life, bigotry and hardship can’t be erased by the power of a single song, but the moment is symbolic of the larger power of culture to unite and uplift human beings. It’s fitting that Man of Constant Sorrow was a hit in real life as part of the film’s Grammy-winning soundtrack. A jam is a jam.

During the Depression, music was an escape from the harsh realities of life. Most of O Brother’s songs, both incidental and part of the score, feature lyrics about a distant, happy future (Big Rock Candy Mountain, I’ll Fly Away, Keep on the Sunny Side) underscoring the version of life that Everett, Delmar and Pete are chasing.

My favorite component of the Coens’ sense of humor is their shameless use of running gags — words or phrases that characters say over and over throughout a film ( think “sombitch” in Raising Arizona, “what’s the rumpus” in Miller’s Crossing). In O Brother, this takes the form of the character’s repeated mention of “answers”. Some (including Everret) claim to have them, but everyone else is looking for them. I read this dialogic quirk as a pointer to the deeper meaning of the film. It’s tempting to think that O Brother is about spirituality — it does contain a lot of religious content on a surface level, including Delmar’s baptisimal awakening and John Goodman’s evil Bible salesman. The political content is also a dead end — there’s a gubernatorial race featuring populist politicians, but the film has little to say about populism or any other political trend.

The Coens are primarily interested in stories, which human beings have always turned to for answers to life’s questions in one form or another. And what better framework for a film about stories than the Odyssey, one of the oldest and most universal narratives ever told or re-told? O Brother sets itself up as a meta-narrative from one of the first scenes — a blind man on a hand-car tells the three travelers the story that they’re about to live before it begins. For the rest of the film, Everett pushes back against this story, shrugging off the obviously meaningful things that keep happening to him and his friends with glib explanations. He thinks he’s got everything figured out himself anyway.

Of course, in real life we get few if any moments of story-like meaning and clarity, which is why we read books and comics, go to the movies, binge on Netflix, and play video games.

It’s deliberate that O Brother has no purely serious moments — despite the meta-narrative subtext, it functions primarily as a comedy. Stories can and should be important to us, but they don’t have to be serious or be taken seriously to function meaningfully in our lives. This is the main idea of the film from which O Brother draws its title, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1942). In it, a comedy director campaigns to make a morality film about poverty in Depression-era America called O Brother Where Art Thou, but upon encountering actual hardship discovers that his comedies are just as meaningful to his audiences.

Stray Observations:

  • Holly Hunter makes a triumphant return to the Coenverse as Penny, Everret’s long lost wife and the mother of his seven daughters. Best line: “Lots of respectable people get hit by trains. Judge Hobby over in Cookeville was hit by a train. What was I supposed to tell them, that you was sent to the penal farm and I divorced you from shame?”
  • That same scene also gives us the best reaction to a new baby ever: “Who the hell is that!?”
  • Joel and Ethan may have never have read the text of The Odyssey, but they ended up making a remarkably comprehensive version of the story. This video breaks down the parallels pretty well: