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The (late again) Sunday Film Review: Classic: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Posted on by sam

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Coen Brothers (2000)

Last week I reviewed Batman 1966, with the proviso I’d review Batman 1989 and compare the two, all in the name of providing a practical demonstration of the little known Sams Motherfucking Theory on Reboots. Nothing’s changed, I’m still going to review Batman 89, buttttttttttttttttttttt, I can’t be doing with two Batman (or Batmen GWA HA HA HA!) films in two weeks, so as a bit of a break from caped crusaders, here’s a film review that will most likely just end up being a gushing love letter explaining why I reckon O Brother, Where Art Thou is a classic. Apologies to anyone disappointed by the lack of a Batman 1989 review, oh wait, no one cares………………………. Cool.

There are tons of justifications I could and very likely will give for describing O Brother, Where Art Thou as a classic; the craftsmanship, the script, the performances, the soundtrack, a personal story involving my father who didn’t grow up strong wrestling alligators down in the Louisiana swamp. Stop reading after the plot summary if you don’t like weepy paragraphs praising a film it’s incredibly difficult to find fault in.

Plot Summary

1937: One fine day down in the more racist half of America, three convicts escape one of those chain gangs that breaks rocks in the hot sun after they fought the law but the law won (how exactly does breaking rocks make someone less likely to recommit crimes?).The trio comprises of the fantastically named Ulysses (there’s a whole Odyssey theme running throughout the film) Everett McGill (George Clooney in one of his finest performances), Pete Hogwallop (a wonderful John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson, who can act, sing, direct and choose roles in good Incredible Hulk films).

The three escaped in order to dig up a fortune Everett buried before he was jailed for robbery but almost immediately are their escape they run into a blind seer (Lee Weaver with a fine if brief performance) who predicts the three have a long journey ahead of them. The seer claims they will find a treasure, but not the one they seek. Then everything becomes more complicated by the appearance of merciless Sheriff Cooley (Daniel Van Bargen, who also played the merciless Commandant Spangler in Malcolm in the Middle), a man more than willing to pursue chain gang escapers to the ends of the earth.

To a prevalent and incredible American folk soundtrack, the three do indeed endure a rather long and bizarre journey. One encompassing an implausible range of historical and fictional characters; there’s Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King, a fantastic musician in his own right) who sold his soul to the devil in return for the ability to play a guitar just like a ringing a bell, bank robber Baby-faced George Nelson (Michael Badalucco: energetic and wonderful) who carries a grudge against cows, bible salesmen Big Dan (a fine John Goodman, wearing an eye patch as a nod towards the Cyclops in The Odyssey) and blind radio station manager Mr Lund (Stephen Root, his delivery is hilarious, a fine fine actor, don’t believe me, watch Office Space).

The three also become embroiled in a mayoral election between incumbent mayor Menelaus ‘Pappy’ O’Daniel (a rough talking and belligerent Charles Durning), and ‘voice of the little man’ (he has a midget as part of his campaign), Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall with a nice character turn). Naturally, being set in the south there’s a Klu Klux Klan moment, as well as an intimate meeting with some singing sirens. If all that weren’t enough, there’s a lovely, spirited performance by Holly Hunter as a character you’ll have to watch the film to discover.

Plot summary finishes.

Waxing lyrical begins.

We begin with the soundtrack. While O Brother, Where Art Thou the film was still being developed, the soundtrack was already recorded. The traditional American folk songs form a huge part of the film. Energetic, soulful, warm and frightening at different points, every scene features its own atmospheric song. It really adds to the experience, and comes as no surprise that the soundtrack was so popular it massively enhanced the careers of the artists who recorded tracks. In terms of a soundtrack, this may be the definitive example of just how music and film can be melded together to create a filmic experience.

Next let’s visit the acting. The Coen brothers have always made films with interesting character turns; Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing, William H Macy in Fargo to name but a few (and there are tons more, oh me oh my yes, tons more indeed). I don’t know if they just had great casting directors, or the atmosphere they create on set is conducive to quality acting, maybe it’s both, whatever the reason, every film has terrific moments of acting. It’s quite possible O Brother, Where Art Thou is the pinnacle of this. Every actor, from the leads to the bit parts, play their parts perfectly, I can’t name one actor that stands out above or below the rest. The entire cast are talents deserving of big houses and private lives. Even the child actors didn’t grate.

Around the corner from acting we have the films direction: O Brother, Where Art Thou is one of those sepia looking films that works. This is an even greater achievement when you consider it was made at a time when every Tom, Dick and Harriet filmmaker viewed sepia as the greatest colour grading effect of all time. In terms of the setting, everything looks just right. An entire portion of a country going through massive change is captured via an interesting variety of roaming wides, detailed close ups and beautiful, off-centre angles. The pacing is tight and consistent too; no section of the story drags or seems weaker than the rest. There are plenty of what i’d call Coen moments included; the odd transition, a weird fade to black or two, and a roam up to fire in a dudes eyes, yet the focus is on story, and characters and all that stuff I insist a good film should have.

Accompanying the technical prowess, is a quirky script filled with wonderful back and forth conversations, strong, consistent characterisations, and a genuinely interesting, heart felt look at the American south as it began an arduous change into a technologically advanced society.

Finally the nods to The Odyssey are clever and probably most importantly, don’t feel contrived.

Had enough of me gushing yet? Oh, that was three paragraphs ago, well how about a personal story?

No wait come back.

Fine, but I’m still telling the story.

There aren’t that many films I’ve watched with my father who shot the sheriff but did not shoot the deputy, and know he’s enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong, there’re plenty of films he’s appreciated; The White Ribbon, Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Oldboy, to name a quality few. We’ve gone to the cinema together plenty of times and he’s even pretended to enjoy some of the films we’ve made here at HFP. Yet despite all that, there are only a few films I can remember watching with him, looking over and seeing genuine joy on his face. A couple of Marx Brothers films (particularly Duck Soup) made the list; he laughed hysterically at anything by Chaplin and had a lot of time for Hitchcock.

Finding a film from more recent days for him to enjoy, well that wasn’t so easy.

Step forward the Coen Brothers. The Big Lebowski had him guffawing, and he’s fond of Fargo, but it’s O Brother, Where Art Thou that I would truly declare his modern (ish) film. It’s a film he continues to watch again and again and again (when’ he’s not having sex with my mum who isn’t the inspiration for Stabuck in the remake of Battlestar Galactica). There’s one specific sequence involving a live performance of the song Jailhouse Now, he used to wind an old VHS tape copy of the film forward to to specifically watch. In the process of writing this I popped round his house and played him that scene. The result; during a busy morning with him running late (thanks to my mum), he took 7 minutes out to stare transfixed at my laptop as the scene played out. See O Brother, Where Art Thou isn’t just a great film; it’s a great memory of times with my father.

Inevitably, as with all my reviews, I feel I have to ask this question: any negatives?

The answer is probably. I don’t believe in perfection, and I would certainly never say O Brother, Where Art Thou is a perfect film.

The films quirkiness will be its undoing to some, while others just won’t care for the music. Yet for me personally, I can find no flaw while watching it, nothing at any point turns me off, or distracts me, or I feel I would have done differently, but then O Brother, Where Art Thou is on my list of films that go beyond pixels and become something much more important. (Others include Oldboy, Clerks, This is England).

Here in a nutshell then, is why I rate O Brother, Where Art Thou as a classic. It’s fantastically well-made, reinvigorated a music genre, holds up today as well as it did when it was made, and provided me with important memories of my father who isn’t a fire-starter, twisted fire-starter. Apart from all that, watching it is just a brilliant experience. It’s the type of film that leaves me wanting to go make my own film (which we did, we just haven’t finished editing the thing yet).

I’ve been thinking of how to end this love letter of a film review, here’s what I came up with………….

Don’t be a dick, go watch O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Written By Sam ‘O Nintendo, Where Art Thou?’ McKinstrie

Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP

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