O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 02/01/01 12:43:12

"Soul stirring romantic comedy adventure"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Although Christianity is the backdrop, fitting because this is the American South in the 1930ís, O Brother Where Art Thou is broadly speaking an allegory about the role of faith in the spiritual and not so spiritual life of humans. But you donít have to be that deep to enjoy this film. What really makes this film worthwhile are the many moments of rousing passion and pathos.

The film begins by telling us that it inspired by the Odyssey, but Iíve read the Odyssey and Iíve even taught the Odyssey, It is better to say that this film is very loosely inspired by the Odyssey. Ulysses McGill, played by George Clooney is roughly Odysseus trying get back home to his wife after being at war for 20 years. In Ulyssess case, he has been in prison. Ulysses and his two companions of the road start out looking for a treasure that they are quickly advised to not pursue by a blind seer. They are told they will find a greater treasure but not the one they seek. They then have one fortunate and fateful meeting after another, pursued all the time by ďThe DevilĒ. The sublime religious overtones of the Christian tradition in O Brother make the Devil an appropriate character but the Devil has no part in the Odyssey like he does in this film.

This is a film that stirred my emotions. O Brother, if anything, communicates the kind of joy that can only be known alongside deep pain. Its like the Christian experience itself. The salvation of the cross is the joy for humans broken by the deep pain of separation from the creator. Of course, this is a conditioned response like all religious feeling. In the West, our sense of the sacred has been wrapped up in Christianity. In O Brother you get a sense of the sacred wrapped up in a psychological mechanism to provoke and release emotion. Wait. Thatís what a bard like Homer and the Greek dramatists were doing. Theatre was a ritual for the purgation of the soul. A mass, if you will, where the central mystery is the salvation of the psyche from the damaging influence of emotions with no proper channel. The Coen Brothers loosely based O Brother on the Odyssey and also created it in the same theatrical tradition.

O Brother has a great soundtrack. What Pulp Fiction did for funk and soul, this film will do for Bluegrass. Maybe the music triggers deep memories of my own southern roots, or maybe its just wonderful,stirring music but if there is anything I took away from this film it was the experience of the music and how it was woven into the story. Music and singing take a central role in guiding the story and developing the plot. Where many movies use music in the background as a device to supply the appropriate emotional cues, O Brother brings the music to the foreground and celebrates it for its own sake without overshadowing the story of the Ulysses.

Holly Hunter is one of my favorite actors and although she has a small role, it is important and works her small part well. The supporting characters get their tales told in fits. When you are trying to keep people enthralled for days or even weeks, having separate tales for each character in an epic is a good tactic. O Brother lets us in on some of the details of the supporting characters lives without becoming tangental or involving any of them in a subplot. Just enough to make them real enough that Ulysses has to deal with them as radical elements that can and do affect the course of his own journey. Ulysses eventually gets what he wants with no small help from God (or the Gods) and the lives of the supporting characters stay tied to the fortunes of Ulysses.

I didnít think Iíd want to go see this film but since someone was taking me out and I had to choose between a film Iíve already seen, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and O Brother, O Brother won by default. Iím tempted to point out the fateful element of me even seeing a film wherein fate is the invisible main character of the film. So I wonít.

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