O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
It’s a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.
You seek a great fortune, you three who are now in chains. You will find a fortune, though it will not be the one you seek. But first, first you must travel a long and difficult road, a road fraught with peril. Mm-hmm. You shall see things wonderful to tell. You shall see a… cow… on the roof of a…cotton house. And, oh, so many startlements. I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward. Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow them even unto your salvation.
And John Goodman plays a cyclops.
Why We Love It
Every time the Coen Brothers come out with a new movie, there’s a test that comes along with it to see if it will overtake my favorite Coen film of all time and find itself suddenly in the number one spot. That favorite of mine? It’s Barton Fink. I love that movie because it tells a haunting story with incredible deftness while hitting a perfect sweet spot between the potential for genius and the struggle to achieve it. The acting, the cinematography, the daring – it’s all incredible to me.
So why am I not writing about that movie? Because if asked whether I want to toss Barton Fink or O Brother, Where Art Thou? into the DVD player and watch one, I will almost always (as in 9 times out of 10) choose O Brother. Somewhere in the second act after I’ve quoted almost every single line, I realize my shameful infidelity to Barton Fink, but it doesn’t stop me from laughing every time Ulysses Everett McGill wakes up mumbling about his hair.
Weeping Jesus on the cross, I love this movie.
For starters, it’s an epic quest undertaken by three dynamic yet endlessly likable characters woven together with a set of intricate, tongue-in-cheek subplots all working together toward an ending that wraps up everything but manages to avoid being so tidy that it feels fake. It is nearly perfectly written, complex, sweet, fraught with peril, and oozing charisma.
The music alone is a reason to love this movie. Out of the ashes of a death that never really happened, Bluegrass and Gospel and that good old timey music gets resurrected and takes center stage here. It may be my Southern heritage or the fact that my mother used to sing “You Are My Sunshine” to me until I fell asleep (as recently as last week), but the tunes provided for this flick are some of the most beautiful created by American songwriters. It spans a history from Negro Spirituals to Country to Folk to Bluegrass to an old timey harmony with a guitar accompany. It’s a sound that is rooted deep in the soil and simultaneously worn out and comfortable like the only pair of jeans you’ll ever own. It’s a sound that can evenly express the human sorrow of this earth and the transcendent beauty and lightness of spiritual hope. Hell, everyone in the country was going apey when the opening guitar riff to the Dan Tyminski and Ron Block (the real Soggy Bottom Boys) version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” cut through whether it was in the movie or on the radio. Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, The Whites, Harry McClintock, Norman Blake, Emmylou Harris…this thing is soaked with incredible talent (new and old).
Just hearing Krauss, Welch and Harris siren-sing “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” is enough to make me feel liquored-up.
It’s also a great sign for a movie when it’s difficult to figure out which character/actor is the best. George Clooney is as fantastic as he’s ever been as McGill, but John Turturro as Pete and Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar are impossible to overlook. All three have incredible chemistry together and nail down difficult parts. That competition is tough enough without even bringing up the side characters played by John Goodman, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, and Hot Damn Stephen Root as the Radio Station Man who pays people to sing into his can.
The look of the film is also a standout. Roger Deakins is a master at his craft, and his cinematography finds a perfect subject in the natural beauty of Mississippi. The Spanish Moss, the rockbeds and riverbanks, the endless fields and train tracks. Beginning in black and white then slowly building to the saturated sepia tones of an old photograph, it stylizes the Depression Era without being a parody. It’s the romantic and gritty version of what the time looks like based on the history books of our childhood, and it works perfectly for the dream-like nature of the film. The digital coloration process they used is fascinating (if you ever get a chance to check out some special features), and even though it led to a ton of films using a Digital Intermediate (films that definitely, definitely don’t need it), it’s still to be applauded for being used so ingeniously here.
Oh, and constant collaborator Roderick Jaynes (who is actually just, you know, a pseudonym used by Joel and Ethan Coen) should be commended for his astute editing skills.
The writing is as sharp as razor wire, injecting equal amounts of humor and despair alongside a well-paced story of misadventures and misdemeanoring. Like I said before, I can almost quote the entire movie which is more a testament to the writing than it is my terrible short term memory. Damn, we’re in a tight spot. Some of your foldin’ money’s come unstow’d. You two are just dumber than a bag of hammers. Ain’t this place a geographical oddity? Two weeks from everywhere. I’m a Dapper Dan Man!
And on top of all these brilliant qualities, the movie achieves something rare in the world of American filmmaking – the use of magical realism. The South is probably the only location that has any real magic to it, and it’s in full form here even if the spiritual component is more allegory than forefront characteristic. It’s a crossroads of the modern and the old, the technology of the era and the spiritualism of the past, and Tommy (a pretty clear reference to Robert Johnson) selling his soul to the Devil is a pretty big factor considering it’s the single action that leads to the Soggy Bottom Boys getting their grand pardon near the end. Not to mention the whole damned thing being foretold by a blind seer who returns only to sing bass with the little Wharvey Gals to remind the audience that his latest sun is sinking fast, his race is nearly run, and the movie is over.
The Moment We Fell in Love
There’s no way you can ask me to pick a favorite scene. It’s just unfair, and I refuse to do it.
But if I have to…
My first inclination is probably not what you’d think. Every scene has something of worth in it, but to me there’s a moment that always catches me off guard after the bank robbery. The trio have money and leave some when stealing a pie that’s cooling on a ledge. It’s during a montage, and I realize how ridiculous that is, but the look on Ulysses, Pete and Delmar’s faces as they eat that pie by the fire is the happiest they look during the entire film. It’s incredible – this genuine, pure, uninhibited happiness that comes after and before a series of tribulations. It’s small, has none of the trademarked dialog, but for some reason it has always hit me the hardest. Harder than anything else in a truly brilliant film. Stuck with me. Gave me hope.
So maybe I feel like I’m cheating on Barton Fink (a fantastic film in its own right) by loving this movie so much, but it just sneaks up on you. The music, the lines, the look. They are all built by expert hands and come together in the best way possible. The story is complex and fulfilling, but it never feels too heavy, never drags. The acting is effortless – there are no actors in the scenes, only characters. I could quote the whole thing without even putting it in the DVD player. But I always do. Even just writing this I want to watch it again. And, despite the danger of being strung up, consumed in a fire, whipped to no end, sunstroked, soggy, turned into a toad, and almost loved up, I’ll succumb to that sweet siren song and travel the long, difficult cinematic road with The Soggy Bottom Boys again.