O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Reviewed By PyThomas
Posted 12/31/02 14:52:08

"We thought you was a toad."
5 stars (Awesome)

It's not often that a film comes out whose soundtrack not only becomes wildly popular but also makes a lasting impression on the music scene.

Take "Urban Cowboy": In 1980 the film did pretty good at the box office, and the soundtrack defined the country music sound of the moment, as well as made a household name out of Charlie Daniels. "Purple Rain" went multi-platinum in 1984 and not only introduced a sexy new electrofunk-and-rock hybrid to the world of R&B, but for a brief moment, men could wear frilly shirts and lots of lace and not be considered gay.

Fast-forward to the year 2000: The pop-country world has grown terribly stale and predictable. Some acts have resorted to using hip-hop beats and drum machines. Country traditionalists are all but convinced the genre has lost its soul. Then at the end of the year, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" landed in theaters, with a soundtrack that vividly replicated the folk, blues and bluegrass music of the 1930s, with not a synthesizer or a remix version in sight. This soundtrack sold millions upon millions of CDs, entrenched itself at the top of the Billboard country charts for months on end, and raked in the Grammys, effectively giving the Nashville music machine a brutal kick in the ass. All of a sudden, country superstars like the Dixie Chicks and Tim McGraw were free to go back to country's roots and make old-timey music smothered in banjos and mandolins, like their grandfathers used to make... and still stay popular and relevant.

But back to the film. After all, this isn't "Nashville Bitchslap". (Or "eCountry Critic.")

What the Coen brothers set out to do was make an early-twentieth-century version of the ancient Greek epic "The Odyssey". For those of you who think the Odyssey is an antiquated video game system or a song by the band Orgy, what we're talking about here is a time-honored tale about a Greek soldier who gets in all sorts of adventures while trying to get home from a ferocious war, only to find his wife has gone off and married someone new.

Here in 1935 Mississippi, the story centers around Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney, looking like a cross between Clark Gable and Tom Selleck), Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), three members of a prison chain gang... or should I say EX-members, as the film opens with them breaking free and seeking refuge. Ulysses ultimately wants to get back to his homestead and dig up some "buried treasure" before it's flooded by a man-made lake. Along the way they encounter a young black bluesman named Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), who joins them briefly as they venture to a radio station out in the middle of nowhere. This station gives cash to musicians who can record a good tune, and so the four of them, calling themselves the "Soggy Bottom Boys", do a little number and make off with the money. This simple little song ultimately proves to be their saving grace later on in the story.

Other people the three fugitives encounter are: three bathing beauties (well, beautiful for the 1930s, anyway) who seduce them to the point of passing out; a riverside church baptismal service that borders on the surreal; Big Dan Teague, a one-eyed mugger posing as a Christian evangelist (John Goodman); the governor of Mississippi, biscuit magnate Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning) relentlessly seeking re-election with his campaign team; his chief opponent, Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall), who has a shady second life; George "Babyface" Nelson (Michael Badalucco), a freewheeling (and bipolar) mobster who is happily robbing banks one minute and dumping the money in a zombie state the next; a menacing-looking Ku Klux Klan rally about to lynch their friend Tommy; and ultimately they meet up with Ulysses' three daughters and estranged wife, Penelope (Holly Hunter), who has since divorced him and got engaged to another man. ("He's a suitor", the daughters keep piping.) This man, Vernon T. Waldrip (Ray McKinnon), also happens to be a campaign manager for Homer Stokes. All the while a group of rogue marshals are hot on the tail of the wayward threesome, led by Sheriff Cooley (Daniel von Bargen), a mysterious man in dark glasses.

Watching this film, you can clearly see that extra special care was taken by the Coens to capture the folksy, stark atmosphere of the Depression era, right down to the early-cinema style of the opening & closing credits. A superb acting job is done by all - it's near impossible to catch anybody slipping out of the deep Southern accents their roles require. The dominant hue here is the muted yellow of the dusty roads, nighttime campfires and endless fields of grain. The music, as mentioned above, is the authentic sounds of the era - no padding the film with modern-day popular hits here (*coughKnight'sTalecough*) - and it greatly enhances the entire ambience of the story.

"O Brother" is indeed a loose retelling of "The Odyssey", and some tweaking is done with some of the historical figures in the story, but overall it's a marvelous film that makes the most of its Southern flavor. Who knew that 1930s Mississippi life and ancient Greek pathos would go so well together?

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