O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

D: Joel Coen
S: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson

Delightful, beautifully crafted film from the Coen Brothers inspired by and loosely structured around Homer's The Odyssey. The story concerns the journey undertaken by three chain-gang escapees (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) through rural Mississippi in the 1930s. They are nominally in search of hidden treasure, but their adventures taken them through a strange series of trials which yield many unexpected results. It turns out, in fact, to be a journey home for their self-appointed leader (Clooney), whose middle name is Ulysses. Their encounters along the way include a brush with a Cyclops (John Goodman as a sinister salesman wearing an eye-patch), sirens (Mia Tate, Christy Taylor, and Musetta Vander), and even a suitor who has taken up with Clooney's wife (Holly Hunter) during his absence. Whatever about its relationship with The Odyssey, this is a genuinely distinctive cinematic vision of a time and place which allows the Coens to indulge in their usual brand of off-kilter humour about the hidden nooks and crannies of Americana. Rich production design by Dennis Gassner, ravishing cinematography by Roger Deakins, and a very effective score with original music by T-Bone Burnett and songs by Chris Thomas King (plus the usual musical support of Carter Burwell) contribute greatly to the film's ability to transport the viewer into the Coen's cinematic universe.

Sharing its title with a running gag in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, the film is noticeably bereft of much in the way of a realpolitik concern with the social and economic conditions of 1930s Mississippi. It is not a realistic portrait of depression-era America, or a comment upon it, or any kind of particularly deep study of the human condition. Despite encounters with George 'Baby Face' Nelson (Michael Badalucco), the dogged pursuit of an unforgiving, shades-wearing sheriff (Daniel Von Bargen), a run-in with the Ku Klux Klan, and their dimly perceived relationship with the conservative Governor (Charles Durning) running for re-election against a reform candidate, this is a film painted on a broad canvas which eludes specific political reading. Using Homer allows scriptwriters Joel and Ethan to construct the film around a series of vivid and memorable characters and situations. Though this relies partly on links to genuine social and political phenomena of the day, the film always retains an ironic self-awareness about its representation of the past and revels in semi-parodic humour. There is none of the darkness of Sullivan's Travels or the social melodrama of I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang here. This is a Coen brothers film which shares the sneakily surrealist mindset of Raising Arizona or The Hudsucker Proxy rather than the edgy spaces between drama and comedy occupied by Barton Fink and Fargo.

It is not as consistently funny as some of the Coens' previous features, but there are plenty of moments of inspired hilarity such as the Ku Klux Klan rally which comes off like a cross between something from The Wizard of Oz and a Busby Berkeley musical. The film is marvelously directed throughout, demonstrating a use of cinematic space and camera movement which makes every moment something to be savoured. The muted palette, the brilliant use of landscape, and the almost effortless use of casual character vignettes and seemingly throw-away gags to increase the feeling of strangeness are all signs of immense cinematic creativity, cheerfully undisciplined as it may be in some respects. It is a film with a lot of aesthetic energy which will stand up to repeated viewing very well, though its immediate rewards may not be as apparent for casual viewers.

Clooney, Turturro, and Nelson are terrific in the leads. Clooney is given the most rounded character, but he's still merely a collection of mannerisms, most of which are funny both in concept and execution. Turturro does his usual line in wild-eyed intensity and plays well against the others, with Nelson making a marvelously Stan Laurelesque foil for them both. Goodman is perfectly cast in what amounts to only a small role, with Durning taking a rather larger share of the screen time than the character seems to warrant until the finale when it all makes perfect sense. None of the actors steps outside of the directorial boundaries, of course, and all of the cast serve the greater cause of the film on the whole rather than attempt to hog the limelight for their own aggrandisement (unlike, for example, Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible II).

O Brother, Where Art Thou is a real treat for anyone who genuinely enjoys and appreciates the cinema. It is not a conventional entertainment, nor is it likely to bridge the gap between critics, audiences, and box-office returns that some of the team's previous efforts have done, but it is a film to be enjoyed and admired. It is not a masterpiece, but those elements which work well are rich and splendid (the heroes' sojourn as an old-time choral band is a particular highlight), and though the film on the whole lacks the manic style of Raising Arizona and the black-comic penetration of Blood Simple and Fargo it is an equally distinctive work of cinematic art which deserves a wider audience than it is likely to get.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.