100 Film Favorites – #62: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
(Coen brothers, 2000)
Today’s entry is probably well-known to many of you, so I won’t belabor you with an over-detailed plot synopsis. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a loose retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey set in the Depression-era American South. George Clooney stars as Ulysses Everett McGill, a chain-gang prisoner who convinces his chain-mates (played by John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) to escape with him, promising to lead them to a stolen treasure he has buried in a valley which will soon be underwater due to a newly-constructed dam redirecting a river.
As they journey across the state, the three men confront one obstacle after another (many of which mirror the tribulations of Odysseus’ own adventure). They get attacked by a one-eyed “Bible salesman” (the cyclops), caught up in a Baptist religious movement’s promise of salvation (the Lotus-eaters), and seduced by a trio of “sirens” bathing in a stream.
Along the way, they even have time to establish a successful career in the music industry, after they stop in at a radio station and record a cover of “Man of Constant Sorrow” which quickly climbs to the top of the charts.
Eventually, the trio, now christened the “Soggy Bottom Boys,” reaches Everett’s home town, and he reveals that his true reason for escaping prison was to return to his wife, who is on the verge of marrying a suitor she considers “bona fide,” more mature and sophisticated than the wheeling-dealing Everett. Everett’s chain-mates are furious that Everett has endangered their lives despite there not actually being any treasure. However, the incumbent governor recognizes the men as the Soggy Bottom Boys and grants them a pardon, mostly to gain positive publicity for his re-election campaign.
Now that he is pardoned, Everett’s wife agrees to re-marry him, but only if he can track down her original wedding ring…which happens to be in an old house in the middle of the valley where Everett had claimed to have buried the treasure. The three men rush to recover it there, when they find themselves cornered by the insidious (and possibly demonic) Sheriff who has been tracking them throughout the film. The Sheriff states that he intends to ignore the men’s pardon, and see them punished regardless. Though he had earlier scoffed at his chain-mates desire for religious salvation, Everett hurriedly improvises a prayer…and the redirected river pours into the valley, sweeping away the Sheriff, the old house, and the three ex-cons in a massive wave. The traveling trio grab hold of various pieces of flotsam, including a chest of drawers, in which Everett discovers the wedding ring.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the first PG-13 – rated movie I ever saw in theaters. The story is an idiosyncratic mashup of elements from both Homer’s epic and the historical American South, with Depression-era figures such as bank robber “Babyface” George Nelson and guitarist Tommy Johnson making appearances alongside the mythic analogues. The introduction of (possible) supernatural elements (enchantment, divine intervention, clairvoyance) create an interesting and unusual, if somewhat off-kilter, film world.
The film was the first to use digital color correction throughout, converting the lush greenery of summertime Mississippi to a dry, “old-timey” sepia-yellow. This gives the film a distinctive look which befits its 1930s setting.
But by far one of the most notable aspects of the film, and the primary reason it is included in this Countdown, is its soundtrack. The film makes use of a variety of period American folk music, all of which is diegetic (performed and/or listened to by characters within the film). Songs include “In the Jailhouse Now,” “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and, most iconically, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” The film prompted a resurgence in the popularity of bluegrass and “mountain music” from the Appalachian region. The film’s soundtrack went on to win the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001. Musicians involved with the film, including Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski (who provides George Clooney’s singing voice), held a concert tour featuring music from the soundtrack. This tour was in turn chronicled in the documentary film Down from the Mountain.
Tid-Bits: While the “Soggy Bottom Boys” performances are mostly provided by other musical artists while the actors lip-sync, Tim Blake Nelson (who plays chain-mate Delmar O’ Donnell) performs the version of “In the Jailhouse Now” heard in the film.
-The film’s title comes from the 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels, in which a Hollywood director aspires to make a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in which he hopes to truly capture the spirit of the “common man” struggling through the grim reality of the Great Depression.