2000 | Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
The Coen Brothers are no strangers to quirky, offbeat cinema. In the thirty years they have been producing, writing, directing and editing their films, their unique brand of metaphorical humour has shared time with their unbelievable knack for chilling drama. Never more than ambiguous, almost every film contains some aspect of deliberate humour, whether the film calls for it not, and more often than not it works.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is definitely the strangest Coen film. A satire, based loosely off Homer’s epic Odyssey, follows Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), three members of a chain gang who are coerced into escaping my Everett in order to find the $1.2 million he has stashed somewhere, the reason he’s been incarcerated in the first place. They only have four days to find it before the valley in which it is stashes is set to be flooded to create Arkabutla Lake.
On their journey they meet Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), a blues guitarist who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his skill on guitar, record a bluegrass song which becomes an overnight sensation, encounter law enforcement, sirens, baptists, the KKK and “Big Dan” Teague (John Goodman) a one-eyed bible salesman. One of them is turned into a frog, another is (almost) burnt at the stake and Everett’s wife Penny (Holly Hunter) has moved on, with a man named Vernon T. Waldrip (Ray McKinnon) a “bona fide” man.
While anyone familiar with Homer’s epic can easily interpret the correspondance of certaint characters and events to the text of which it is based, apparently the Coens had never read the poem, and were only familiar with its content through adaptations and references to Odyssey through pop culture. Despite this, they happily attributed a writing credit to Homer.
It is the fifth collaboration between the Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins, and while it is hard to name it the “best”, it is certainly one of the most aesthetically engaging Deakins outings. The film looks like an old hand-tinted film. Greens are more like burnt yellows, contrast is high as the open skies burn our eyes and the film and it seems the entire colour spectrum was used in toning each characters’ skin.
The Coens’ best thematic work often transcends its setting, with their social commentary on the problems confronted by the average man heading the list of lesser themes, which are usually derived from the time and place the film is set. The film makes reference to the traditions, institutions and campaign practices of bossism and political reform which defined Southern politics in the first half of the 20th century. Ultimately the film is about the struggle of man to earn, or earn back, what he wants and the various struggles he must overcome to achieve happiness. The plight of every man, really.