“Pete, it’s a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.”
O Brother, Where Art Thou, directed by the Coen Brothers (True Grit, No Country for Old Men) and starring George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, feels a bit like a modern fairy tale. Right from the start, it feels like it’s a completely different world, even though it’s set in the Depression-era American South. As in the quote above, this movie is firmly rooted in the realm of the human heart. Don’t expect the plot to shoot you in a logical straight line from point A to point B. It’s more about the journey than the destination. Clever writing, acerbic wit, and immersive art direction elevate this from old-fashioned camp and make the journey a fun one.
The plot of O Brother, Where Art Thou is very loosely based on The Odyssey, an epic poem by ancient Greek author Homer. The connection is weak: if you haven’t read it, you won’t miss out on much, aside from a few subtle jokes. The story follows three escaped convicts as they seek a buried treasure to rebuild their lives. As I said, though, the story is more about the journey, as each of the convicts discovers there’s more to rebuilding a life than treasure can provide. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what transpires in the film, but you’ll experience the changes along with the three convicts as they piece their lives back together.
I am a man of constant sorrow, I’ve seen trouble all my days. I bid farewell to old Kentucky, the place where I was born and raised.
Though the writing was clever and memorable, it’s the art direction that really stands out in this film. Everything from the sets and costumes to the framing of shots to the post-processing film effects give this film a highly stylized look. And the soundtrack is phenomenal. Artists like Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch contribute their talents to this folk and bluegrass masterpiece. The sum of these parts is a seamless, masterfully-crafted grown-up fairy-tale world experienced through sight and sound.
Though the movie is funny, it has some tense and unsettling moments. Sometimes, the comedic and unsettling moments coincide and you’re not sure whether you should laugh or be appalled. Overall, though, the movie had me laughing most of the time and enjoying the journey from start to finish. This is not a heavy movie. It’s light and uplifting, although not afraid to shed some light on the darker parts of human experience.
One thing worth noting is that they stuck with period-accurate viewpoints and language for the movie—including some overtly racist bits straight out of the 1930s Deep South. The movie does not portray this in a positive or glamorous light, so it serves to shine some light on racism’s sordid past in America, but some viewers might find it offensive.
O Brother, Where Art Thou is a movie I think most people can enjoy, if they’re in the mood to take a little journey. It’s a movie that invites you on an adventure along with the main characters. It’s beautiful and fun, but it requires a little more emotional investment than a more straightforward movie. The payoff is great, but I’ll admit that there are times I just want to sit down and watch a simple story unfold without any effort on my part. For an adventure movie, though, this is top-notch and definitely worth watching.
Nominations: Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins)
Directors: Coen Brothers
Genres: adventure, comedy