Cataloging the best movies of the past few decades.
O Brother Where Art Thou
Directed by: Joel Coen
Starring: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman
Since their careers took off back in the 1980s with their first film Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers have turned out one of the most consistent, in terms of quality, filmographies of the past half-century, possibly filmmaking history. Whether they tried their hands at pulp crime (Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There), comedies (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski), or westerns (No Country For Old Men, True Grit), it doesn’t seem like there is a genre that exists which they cannot make a quality product. Lost in the shuffle of a Best Picture winner and a handful of bona fide cult classics lies possibly my favorite film by the duo: 2000’s O Brother Where Art Thou.
Based on Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, O Brother Where Art Thou brings the familiar tale to Depression-era Mississippi. Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) along with the two men he is chained to escape from a chain gang and head off to find a treasure while getting themselves into a series of tight spots, dust-ups, and overall madcap adventures. Along the way, they get baptized, rob some banks with George “Babyface” Nelson, and run afoul of the Ku Klux Klan; that’s merely half of what goes on in this fun road movie.
George Clooney is at the top of his game here and it’s probably my favorite of his performances. Everett is a verbose, charming, but ultimately thick-headed person and a lot of the predicaments they get into are due in large part to the latter. Heck, the treasure itself is a lie that he created in order to get Pete and Delmar to come along with him. He’s a fast-talker and a bit of a schemer and the performance solidifies him as one of the best leading men of his generation. It’s a performance that, in a different era, would have been played by Clark Gable or Cary Grant; Clooney here picks up the torch with ease.
Roger Deakins outdoes himself with the cinematography here, as it is one of the prettiest looking Coen Brothers’ films to date. Every scene is bathed in gold, giving it a sepia-toned feel that greatly compliments the nostalgic feel of the movie. There are just so many picturesque moments of the film; each frame could be matted at placed in an art gallery. From the opening shot of the escape through the cornfield to the baptism scene all the way to the closing scenes, the look of the film is absolutely breathtaking and fits perfectly in line.
The film is another example of a great collaboration from the Coens and actor John Goodman. In a supporting role, he plays Big Dan Teague, a fast-talker like Everett that fills the role of the Cyclops in the movie. To me, Goodman is an underrated actor and he’s always at the top of his game when he works with the Coens. His turns in Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski were all great performances and this one is no different. He always seems to bring a certain level of energy that comes at odds with the demeanor of the main character; I can’t imagine anyone else that could bring the sort of intensity and maintain his physically imposing stature.
I’ve written enough words without talking about the music, which is a main character of the film as well. The music really sets the landscape that the characters inhabit and the centerpiece happens to be the Soggy Bottom Boys performance of “Man of Constant Sorrow”. The rest of the soundtrack is an enchanting mix of blue grass, hymnals, and spirituals. While the film itself was a middling box office success, the soundtrack exploded, selling five million copies and racking up a ton of awards including five Grammys.
A road movie at heart, O Brother Where Art Thou is a film that gets a bit overlooked when talking about the Coen Brothers and film of the past fifteen years, in general. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s an excruciatingly enjoyable adventure, funny as hell, and beautiful to look at.