Monday, February 20, 2012

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Originally Written and Posted at on 9/14/08 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Written, produced, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a loose re-telling of Homer's The Odyssey set during the Great Depression in Mississippi where three dim-witted convicts try to find lost treasure as they get into strange encounters with a trio of sirens, a KKK member, and other places while becoming hit musicians in the process. With an all-star cast that includes Coen Brother regulars Holly Hunter, Charles Durning, Michael Badalucco, John Goodman, and John Turturro along with two future regulars in George Clooney and Stephen Root. Also starring Tim Blake Nelson, Ray McKinnon, Chris Thomas King, Lee Weaver, Wayne Duvall, and Daniel von Bargen. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a whimsical musical-comedy from the Coen Brothers.

Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Tuturro), and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) have just escaped the chain gang as they go on the run where they meet a blind seer (Lee Weaver) who would reveal their destiny as they seek lost treasure in a soon-to-be flooded valley. With only four days to find it, the men stop at the farm of Pete's cousin Wash where they're betrayed to the authorities led by Sheriff Cooley (Daniel von Bargen). Thanks to Wash's son, they escape as they later encounter a baptism and meet a young black musician named Tommy (Chris Thomas King) who claims to have sold his soul to the devil to become great. In need of money, the three convicts and Tommy stop at a radio station owned by the blind Mr. Lund (Stephen Root) who records their song Man of Constant Sorrow as they become the Soggy Bottom Boys and with a hit song.

Evading Cooley, Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar encounter bank robber George "Baby Face" Nelson (Michael Badalucco) at a robbery as they help Nelson find salvation while gaining his robbery money in return. The journey gets stranger as they trio encounters a trio of beautiful sirens where Ulysses and Delmar awaken from their encounter with Pete missing as Delmar is convinced he's become a toad. A meeting with a one-eyed Bible salesman named Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) turns bad as Ulysses learns about an upcoming election between governor Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning) against reform candidate Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall). Arriving at town, Ulysses also learns that his wife Penny (Holly Hunter) has divorced him and is engaged to Stokes' campaign manager Vernon T. Waltrip (Ray McKinnon) whom he tries to fight against. Learning that Pete is alive and captured by the authorities, Ulysses and Delmar bust him out as they fight about the whereabouts of the treasure.

Running into a Ku Klux Klan meeting where Tommy is about to be hanged, they discover who the leader is as well who is associated with the Klan. After saving Tommy, Ulysses decides to make a chance to win back Penny as he, Pete, Delmar, and Tommy disguise themselves as the Soggy Bottom Boys. Playing their hit song and winning over Governor O'Daniel, the outlook for the men is great as they get closer to the treasure where they would encounter Cooley leading to a fateful intervention for all involved.

What makes this film a unique adaptation isn't its setting but how the Coen Brothers manage to put a lot of references in relation to Homer's epic tale. At the same time, the Coen Brothers create a story that audiences who know of Homer's story can follow through as it's one of their most accessible and entertaining features. The script is filled with stylized dialogue that is in relation to the times as is the music that is an important part of the film. The music helps tell the story and setting as it's all enriched in the roots of American music.

The direction of the Coen Brothers is truly unique as Joel and Ethan Coen create a vision and compositions that are unique to the story. While a lot of the humor is based on slapstick, it's timing and take on simpletons aren't insulting but rather props as it's clear that the Coen Brothers aren't really making fun of them. Yet, put these not-so-bright men in situations and see how it will unfold. Yet, their presentation of each scene and situation is done with such style and energy. It's clear that the Coen Brothers are creating a vision that is true with the times as if it was a time machine while adding a sense of humor and style in the mix. The result is the Coen Brothers being at their finest.

The Coen Brothers' longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins creates superb work to the film and its compositions. With its use of yellowish, sepia-awash colors to create a dream-like style to some of the film's exterior settings. Deakins' emphasis on a depth of field is gorgeous to watch as his daytime exterior work is gorgeous while in the nighttime, there are shades of blues and other colors that are rich. Deakins' work is definitely amazing and true to the style of the Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers in their Roderick Jaynes alias along with Ethan Coen's wife Tricia Cooke do great work in the film's editing. The rhythmic pacing works with its leisurely with its sense of style with jump-cuts, wipes, and other transitional cuts in dissolves show the Jaynes and Cooke's unique approach to the editing. Especially when it comes from composition to another that moves with such ease.

Longtime production designer Dennis Gassner with set decorator Nancy Haigh and art director Richard L. Johnson create amazing period sets with its decaying farms, landscapes, and other locations. Notably in the scenes that included old props like 1930s microphones and other 1930s objects as Gassner and his team do superb job. Costume designer Mary Zophres, another regular Coen Brothers collaborator, does an amazing job with the film's period costumes that is in tune with Deakins' cinematography of light colors and dresses that Holly Hunter wears to the suits that most of the actors with the exception of its main actors. Visual effects supervisor Erik Nash creates some great visual work in some of the film's visual effects scene that includes a river and a train scene. Longtime Coen Brothers sound editor Skip Lievsay along with sound designer Eugene Gearty do great work in the film's sound to capture the atmosphere of the times as well as the action and hijinks that goes on.

Longtime collaborator Carter Burwell contributes minor music pieces to the film as much of the film's score and soundtrack is supervised by T-Bone Burnett. The film's soundtrack is rich with roots-based American music like bluegrass and country with contributions from artists like James Carter, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Harry McClintock. The album is one of those few Grammy-award winning albums that deserve its prize as it's filled with a lot of rich music and songs that are memorable that is true to Americana.

The casting by Ellen Chenoweth is superb with small but memorable performances from Georgia Rae Rainer, Marianna Breland, Lindsey Miller, and Natalie Shedd as Ulysses' daughters, Frank Hollison as Wash Hogswollop, Quinn Gasaway as Wash's son, Gillian Welch as a record buyer, and as the sirens, Christy Taylor, Musetta Vander, and Mia Tate. J. R. Horne and Brian Reddy are great as Pappy O' Daniel's campaign managers who aren't very bright while Del Pentecost is also funny as Pappy's dim-witted son. Ed Gale is great as Homer Stokes' little man who is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lee Weaver is great as the blind seer who represents the character of Tiseras, the blind seer in The Odyssey. Stephen Root is excellent as the blind radio station manager Mr. Lund with his comments on the Soggy Bottom Boys while Michael Badalucco is also excellent as George Nelson, a manic-depressive bank robber.

Ray McKinnon is good as Vernon T. Waltrip, a man who threatens Ulysses' role as the pater familias while having some funny moments in his fight scene with Clooney. Wayne Duvall is great as reform candidate Homer Stokes who is very comical and carries a great presence while revealing a dark side into his character. Daniel von Bargen is brilliant as Sheriff Cooley, a man with dark sunglasses and a hound dog that proves to be very menacing as he carries a huge presence. Chris Thomas King, a real-life musician who also contributes to the soundtrack, is great as Tommy whose character is based on blues legend Robert Johnson. Charles Durning is amazing as Pappy O'Daniel with his crusty, frustrated attitude while in the Soggy Bottom Boys performance scene, he lets loose as the famed actor has some great scene-stealing moments. John Goodman is great in his usual role for the Coen Brothers as a Bible-selling, mugging man who is very vicious while his character is based on Cyclops from The Odyssey. Holly Hunter is excellent as Penny, a character based on Penelope of The Odyssey, as a woman disappointed in Ulysses and is trying to raise her family as Hunter is funny in her role.

Tim Blake Nelson is brilliant as the dim-witted yet simple-minded Delmar O'Donnell as he's the less intelligent of the three convicts. Nelson's performance is filled with lots of innocence and charm as Nelson provides a great balance between Clooney and Turturro. John Turturro is brilliant as Pete, a brutish man with dreams to run his own restaurant as he's the guy often arguing with Ulysses as Turturro brings a wonderful, funny performance to his character. Finally, there's George Clooney is a hilarious role as Ulysses. A man with lots of ideals and comments while demanding that he needs Dapper Dan hair gel as Clooney provides great comedic time and commentary as it's one of the actor's finest performances.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a wonderfully funny, entertaining, and gorgeous musical-comedy from the Coen Brothers. With a great cast, great look, and an amazing soundtrack, it's one of the Coen Brothers finest and most accessible films to date. Fans of the filmmaking duo will no doubt see this as one of their finest work. While it may not reach the hilarity heights of films like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski, the film does stand out on its own while it's famed soundtrack is one of the decade's finest. In the end, for a good time with American roots music, Dapper Dan hair gel, and telling people that you're the pater familias, you're goddamned bona fide! O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the film to go see that's worth watching over and over again.

(C) thevoid99 2012


Chip Lary said...

"Say, any of you boys smithies? Or, if not smithies per se, were you otherwise trained in the metallurgic arts."

An eminently quotable film that I love. Great review.

Even though I'd read everything about mythology I could get my hands on in my younger days I honestly didn't get the Odysseus connection until someone else pointed it out, then I didn't know how I could have missed it. I *had* picked up on the American folklore with Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil down at the crossroads.

I loved Tim Blake Nelson's dimwitted character. "Gopher?"

I also loved the surround sound on the forest scene and the river baptism. I used to play that and the rooftop bullet dodging scene for people when I wanted to show friends what surround sound added to a movie (hey, this was 2001 - almost no one knew what surround sound was.)

thevoid99 said...

It's definitely one of the Coens' best films. Certainly one of their most entertaining films.