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Dissecting the Classics – O Brother, Where Art Thou?

September 21, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

September has been dedicated to the works of the Coen Brothers, with the last two weeks covering what are probably their two most popular films in Fargo and The Big Lebowski. The final film for this month is probably pretty obvious and one I’ve been looking forward to covering for a while, but picking the fourth film for this month wasn’t easy. Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Blood Simple, A Serious Man, True Grit and even Burn After Reading crossed my mind as potential candidates for this fourth slot, and a few will probably end up covered on this column in the future. But ultimately, I wanted to go with the film I had the most personal connection to, the film that was my introduction to their work.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Wide Release Date: October 19, 2000
Directed By: Joel Coen
Written By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Produced By: Ethan Coen
Cinematography By: Roger Deakins
Edited By: Joel and Ethan Coen (as Roderick Jaynes) & Tricia Cooke
Music By: T Bone Burnett
Production Company: Working Title Pictures
Distributed By: Buena Vista Pictures
George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill
Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar O’Donnell
John Turturro as Pete Hogwallop
Holly Hunter as Penny Wharvey-McGill
John Goodman as Daniel “Big Dan” Teague

What Do We All Know?

While the Coen Brothers had definitely had critical success at the time of O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s release, they were hardly bulletproof yet. The Big Lebowsi was gaining traction as a cult favorite and Fargo had already made the AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Films list back in 1997. But this film was released to mostly positive but largely enthusiastic reviews. If you’re a Coens devotee, you might even consider this a lesser Coens film, with the most notable detail being the use of digital color correction for the film’s entire runtime in order to make the entire film look like era-appropriate sepia toned photography. And considering how the Coens have become a full-fledged brand since this movie came out, becoming Oscar winners and achieving status as two of the premiere movie-makers of their time, it’s easy to justify that viewpoint.

But for me, O Brother, Where Art Thou? will always have a special place in their filmography. Long before I saw the movie, I was introduced to the music thanks to rides to church in my grandparents’ car, and hearing the music always stirs up memories of that time of my life. I’m definitely in a different place, but the music still speaks to me, and when I heard it for the first time I knew I had to watch this movie. Revisiting it for the sake of reviewing it on this column was really a no-brainer.

What Went Right?

What is probably most notable about O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that it accidentally became a retelling of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. The Coens noticed the similarities early on, despite never actually reading the story. After doing so, they decided to run with it, making their story of Ulysses Everett McGill’s journey to stop his estranged wife from marrying her new fiance mirror the travels of Odysseus as much as they can. Those with a passing familiarity will recognize incidents like the Sirens and John Goodman’s one-eyed man as a parallel to the Cyclops. But those with more intimate knowledge will see one-to-one parallels of Zeus, Poseidon and other specific incidents. While this is hardly necessary for enjoying the movie, it does add a truly interesting layer and shows how the classic tropes can be adapted to a completely different time and setting and still work. Our stories and traditions are important, and finding new ways to keep them alive is equally important.

The film is also an impressive period piece, set in Mississippi during the later years of the Great Depression. A major reason is Roger Deakins’ cinematography, which is impeccable as always but benefits greatly from the color correction, the only major technological expense on an otherwise pretty bare bones film. The costumes, characters and politics of the film also help set the setting, but the defining aspect is the film’s soundtrack. T Bone Burnett selected an impressive collection of bluegrass, gospel, country and folk music. The film plays like a musical in some ways, with the major setpieces having an appropriate song to go with it. The baptism scene with Allison Krauss’ angelic vocals on “Down to the River to Pray”, Ralph Stanley’s haunting take on “O Death” in the Ku Klux Klan scene, and the now iconic performance of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” by Dan Tyminski are all standouts, but songs like “I’ll Fly Away”, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “You Are My Sunshine” all help create the atmosphere of the film. The soundtrack won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year and is arguably the film’s lasting legacy.

You don’t have to be literary savante or a country music fan to appreciate this movie though. As per usual, the Coens have assembled a great cast. The charismatic George Clooney is perfect for the smooth-talking arrogance of Ulysses, Holly Hunter nails his hellcat of a wife, Tim Blake Nelson makes Darnell a lovable idiot, and frequent Coen cohorts John Turturro and John Goodman bring their usual propensity for outlandish characters. Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning, Wayne Duvall, Michael Badalucco, Lee Weaver, Daniel von Bargen and Stephen Root round out a cast of colorful, memorable characters that dart in and out of the story in signature Coens fashion. The movie is primarily a comedy, finding amusement in the multitude of sufferings Ulysses and company go through, while contemplating matters philosophical, political and spiritual along the way. The movie will keep you guessing, keep you laughing and might even get you thinking a little bit.

What Went Wrong?

Watching this film again, I felt like it doesn’t take many major missteps. At the same time, I don’t think it ever really elevates itself from good to great at any point. Individual scenes are striking and even excellent, but usually just well-made and entertaining. The Coens film this reminds me most of is Hail, Caesar!, a film which is often quite funny, visually striking and has some standout moments, but it definitely less than the sum of its parts. That’s not a huge problem when you get down to it; plenty of movies are good in a forgettable sort of way. But considering the high standard of the Coens’ work, it’s hard to look at “good but not quite great” as a mild disappointment.

And In Summary…

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is probably not a genuine classic, but it is a personal favorite and one of the best examples of what makes the Coens the Coens. The title is a reference to Sullivan’s Travels, it’s almost but not quite a western, it dabbles in nihilism and absurdism, there’s a collection of memorable characters that show up and leave as needed, and it’s got a strong sense of time and place. It uses music, folklore and classic mythology to form a basis for a new epic, celebrating the importance of these art forms. And it’s also got one of the best and most celebrated movie soundtracks of all time. It’s not an elite Coen Brothers film but it’s worth seeing and one I was happy to revisit for this month.

Next week, we take a look at my favorite and the most acclaimed Coen Brothers work. Then it’s time for a month of horror classics in the month of October.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski

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