I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the films of the Coen Brothers lately, and revisiting many of their films, due to a surprise invitation from one of my favorite film reviewers: Matt Zoller Seitz. He’s asked me to join him in exploring some intriguing questions: Are the Coen Brothers moralists? Do they believe in God? Do their films present a compelling vision of faith, hope, good, and evil? Or they cynical and grim?
Today, as Matt and I wrapped up our conversation (it will be published soon), I found myself thinking that I should revisit O Brother. Even though it’s an over-the-top comedy, it’s the film in which the Coens engage the redeeming power of the Gospel most directly.
Digging through the archives, I’ve uncovered my original review of the film. Reading it, I’m persuaded of two things: 1) I have a hard time reading things that I wrote twelve years ago. 2) Nevertheless, I don’t think my opinion of the film has changed much.
So, for what it’s worth, here’s my ancient review of the film, with a few small revisions, and a new cameo appearance by Annie Dillard…
In 1941 when Preston Sturgess made his classic comedy Sullivan’s Travels (if you haven’t seen it, rent it immediately), he probably had no idea that there would be, in a manner of speaking, a sequel. In Travels, the hero Sullivan attempts to make a motion picture about the plight of the poor. He wants to call it O Brother Where Art Thou? He finds out, though, that the world doesn’t need a hard-hitting drama about the life of the poor. In fact, what the world needs is more laughter, more joy, more hope.
Lo and behold, sixty years later, the Coen Brothers give us a movie called O Brother Where Art Thou? On the surface, it’s a rather frivolous and silly comedy. But there’s a lot more going on under the surface. It’s all about the stuff that brings people real laughter, real joy, and real hope.
By now, you probably know whether or not you like the Coen Brothers. Their movies are as distinct in sound and style as the films of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, the Zucker Brothers, or perhaps even more similarly, the films of Frank Capra and Preston Sturgess. While most of their movies have a flair for the dark, violent, and bizarre (who can forget, even if they want to, the nasty surprise at the end of Fargo?), it is the dialogue that makes a film unmistakably their own.
Joel and Ethan love dialects. They love accents. They love the particular flavor of language that gives a person a specific geographical placement. They love it so much that they exaggerate it. From Blood Simple to The Big Lebowski, they have given us a large population of tangle-tongued heroes and villains. Some find it tiresome. Even Roger Ebert gave a thumbs-down to Raising Arizona, saying in essence, “Nobody talks like that.” But over time, it became more clear that there was method to the madness. Barton Fink won big at Cannes, while Fargo almost scored a big upset at the Oscars.
Some critics have faulted the Coens, saying their characters are mockeries of different minorities, of the middle and low class. No-sir-ee. Everybody gets exaggerated in a Coen film. Even the rich. Even the powerful. What makes their films so remarkable is that, even as they stretch their characters into wild shapes and sizes like Bugs, Daffy, Porky, and other Looney Tunes, they still manage to find some heart in them. In Barton Fink, we cared about Barton in his quest for artistic integrity. In Fargo, we loved Margie in her quest for simple virtue and justice, for her work ethic. In Raising Arizona, we wanted those poor childless crooks to find some (legal) way of having a child of their own. Don’t worry. The Coens care.
The Brothers also like to fill their movies with things they love. Styles. Genres. Formulas. Stories. The Hudsucker Proxy was a brilliant spoof of and tribute to Frank Capra, Katherine Hepburn, and Preston Sturgess. Miller’s Crossing was a great gangster flick that echoed all the great gangster flicks, yet became something totally unique at the same time. In O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Brothers weave together a plot thread from The Odyssey, the rapid-fire dialogue of Sturgess films, and a deep deep love of American Roots Music.
With the help of T-Bone Burnett, master musical archivist, the movie becomes a journey through the Deep South in the 1930s. Following three chain-gang escapees on a voyage to fame and fortune, we encounter gospel music at a river baptism, sexy soul in the presence of sultry seductresses, smash-hit folk music at a local radio station, and resonant black gospel at the scene of a gravedigging. The heroes come across Tommy Johnson, who just made a legendary bargain with the devil so he could play guitar. (Watch closely for a brief appearance by folk singer Gillian Welch.) There’s even an ominous old spiritual called “O Death” that pops up, of all places, at a KKK rally, which suddenly turns into a full-fledged Busby-Berkley style spectacle, with white-robed villains marching in crazed choreography before a burning cross. If you’re listening closely, you’ll pick out great voices like Allison Krauss, GillianWelch, Emmylou Harris, and Ralph Stanley.
This might sound a bit outrageous. It is. And if you don’t realize right off the bat that this movie is more about the music than one-liners and special effects, then you’ll walk away puzzled and disappointed.
As storytelling goes, O Brother is, admittedly, pretty thin. The references to Homer’s Odyssey merely provide a plot structure to move us through the music. Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) is determined to leave his chain-gang sentence behind and find his wife (Holly Hunter) and kids. His two companions, Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), a simple-minded, soft-hearted loon, and Pete (John Turturro), a sawed-off shotgun of a man, ramble along with him, hopping trains (almost) and dodging the law. They hope to uncover a $1.2 million dollar treasure that Ulysses has promised them. They have many and varied encounters along the way, with a Cyclops (John Goodman), sirens, a storm… all of Homer’s old tricks. Oh, yeah, and Ulysses’ wife is named Penny, of course.
The childlike minds of our dunderheaded heroes give them the unique perspective of seeing miracles even in perfectly explainable circumstances. Whether it’s one of their company falling victim to a wicked spell (maybe) or another being saved simply because the parson said so, they’re ready to buy into anything that will give them hope.
And it’s precisely that — hope — that the music provides. When the boys pass through town and see politicians running for office, its music that captures the attention and the enthusiasm of the people. At the baptism or in the arms of the sirens, it is the heavenly voices that first capture their attention. Only in one instance, when the KKK get ready to sacrifice a man for his complexion, does music serve to bring down nightmares… and that song is sung by one soulful and sinister voice.
The boys themselves become a sensation when they stop at a roadside radio station and record a song, identifying themselves as “The Soggy Bottom Boys”. Watching Clooney, Turturro, and Nelson ham it up singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” is an unexpected, spirit-lifting pleasure, especially when they reprise the song near the end of the film.
Add to this the glorious cinematography of Roger Deakins, which bathes the Mississippi environment in sepia colors and white hot blasts of summer sun, and what you have is the Coen Brothers’ most beautiful and upbeat movie. There’s no sign of Barton Fink‘s dark currents, of Miller’s Crossing‘s harsh moral dilemmas, or even that faint hint of sarcasm that ran through Hudsucker. This is the first unapologetically optimistic Coen Brothers film.
It’s also more insightful than it might seem. O Brother is not unlike Looney Tunes, which contained a great deal of social commentary, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. By exaggerating the highs and lows of the 1930s South, they create a fairly effective portrait of the time. By lampooning the KKK, they can illustrate its evils without resorting to shock-tactics. It’s easy to show evil by portraying its grisly extremes; it’s more effective and responsible to dismiss the melodrama and merely expose the foolishness of the evil one.
There is endless debate among Coen fans as to which of their films is the greatest. It’s a pointless affair. Their films, while similar in voice, are entirely different in intention and style. All of them have strengths and shortcomings. O Brother suffers from some unfortunate lapses in comedy. The sequence with John Goodman’s Cyclops lurches clumsily about, looking for something funny. And they don’t find much for Charles Durning to do as a temperamental politician.
But the performances are so audacious and fun to watch. Clooney is especially surprising, in his glamourless turn as a goofy Clark Gable who never fails to indulge in slopping “hair jelly” across his head. Turturro creates yet another completely original character, a far cry from his Barton Fink or Jesus the Bowling Champion. Above all, though, Tim Blake Nelson makes Delmar endearing and warm, the hero with the biggest heart, in spite of his incredible ignorance.
So different, so cheerful, so glowing a film — no doubt, O Brother will become the favorite for a few of the Coens’ fans out there. (My favorite? I’d have to say Raising Arizona.)
The Coen Brothers are demonstrating a very important truth in this film: that art, and especially music, can triumph over the worst evils. And the irrepressible joy of the music that bursts from O Brother‘s most ridiculous souls is a testament that God can shame the proud with the efforts of the humble. It echoes the theme that ran through Amadeus… that God gives grace the humble, and blesses even the simple and the crass with gifts that make the world a better place.
We need that kind of story, to remind us that the sublime can be revealed in the lives of fools, and to caution us against the glorification of artists. It’s the art — the longings that it inspires, the way it heals what is broken within us, the way it draws us toward mystery and the belief in something greater than ourselves — that truly matters. As Annie Dillard has written,
There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination.