An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
PUBLISHED: 12:12 07 October 2017 | UPDATED: 12:12 07 October 2017
Films with re-watch value, movies with a unique quality, will become the classics of the future. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?, dir: Joel Coen; starring: George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Chris Thomas King, Charles Durning. Cert: 12 (2000)
Fargo may be the undisputed classic in the Coen Brothers extensive and varied filmography but the film that competes for both quirkiness and re-watch value is the frequently over-looked O Brother, Where Art Thou?,
It’s a depression era comedy that is both a homage to Bluegrass country music and a bizarre re-telling of the ancient Greek myths, set in the rural backwaters of 1930s America.
It’s Homer’s Odyssey played out by a gang of convicts on the run, trying to find a way back into their lives. It’s stylised, absurd and very funny. It’s pitched just right by both the actors and Coen Brothers who know, by this stage in their careers, just how far they can push things.
As a film it is very beguiling and uses the music, the period setting and outstanding performances, particularly by George Clooney, to ensnare its audience. Once it has you hooked, the film becomes a cinematic comfort blanket, allowing you to revisit it time and again whenerver you need a dose of something entertaining and just a little strange.
Everett, Delmar and Pete (Clooney, Nelson and Turturro) have escaped from a chain gang in 1930s Mississippi. Clooney’s Everett is the fast-talking, brainy leader, while the suspicious Pete challenges him at every turn and Delmar just dopily goes along with whatever is suggested.
Their goal is a cache of elusive treasure that will be swallowed up by a dammed-up river in just a few days. So they embark on an epic journey during which they encounter a one-eyed Bible salesman/crook (Goodman), a gifted blues musician who has sold his soul to the devil, a couple of battling politicians, a bank robber and an overly tenacious cop.
Everett is fixated on retrieving the loot that he buried just before he was hauled off to jail and risks all to get back home to his ex-wife, played with perceptive ambivalence by Holly Hunter, and his beloved daughters.
Visually the film looks gorgeous with a sepia filter giving the cinematography a gloriously warm nostalgic feel. The attention to period detail is so right that at times you feel that Laurel and Hardy may walk onto the screen and you will find our heroes caught up in a scene from Way Out West.
The bluegrass music gives the movie a sense of place and its spritely jigs weave themselves throughout the movie and lead the audience from scene to scene, from adventure to adventure. The music is infectious, even for non-country fans, and propels the story forward.
Like the original Homer’s Odyssey, there is a feeling that you can’t linger very long in any one place, the story can only be told by everyone keeping moving. You can feel the prison guards with their dogs snapping at your heels.
It would be so easy to turn this into a stereotypical prison break movie but by attaching the characters to an ancient Greek adventure story, the Coens have come up with something entirely original.
Also they are not afraid to mix slapstick with pathos. There are many laugh out loud moments dotted throughout the movie but there are also some very emotional moments which are treated with the gravity that they deserve.
O Brother Where Art Thou? Is an eccentric road movie which reveals its heroes to be essentially good men. Clooney’s Everett still loves his wife and wants to prevent her from marrying another man.
Clooney reveals himself to be a natural comedian with a light-touch and a lovely sense of timing. He is happy to make Everett a flawed hero with an obsession with his hair and his favourite ‘Dapper Dan’ hair cream.
The Coens love the grotesque and their view of the Deep South in the 1930s seems to thrive on it. My favourite sequence has Delmar believing that Pete has been turned into a toad by the Sirens and so he then starts carrying round a toad in a show box, talking to it, believing it to be his friend.
It’s strange, its goofy but keeping up with the comic invention is all part of the fun. It’s part of the film’s appeal and what keeps you coming back for more. It’s a film which nourishes your cinematic soul while it makes you laugh. It’s clever but not too clever.