O, Brother, Where Art Thou?
A film Written and Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
This latest effort from the Coen brothers may be their best film yet. While arguably not their deepest or most challenging film, O, Brother Where Art Thou? takes what they do best - social satire - and makes the most of it. Without most of the disturbing, violent imagery that made Fargo, Barton Fink, and even Raising Arizona sometimes hard to watch, O, Brother "gilds the philosophic pill," in W.S. Gilbert's apt phrase, in a way that makes its commentary on society much easier to swallow.
Like such depression era comedies as My Man Godfrey, or Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (from which the title of this film is derived), O, Brother effectively combines character comedy with satire in a way that is subversive without being offensive and instructive without moralizing. In a remarkably choreographed set-piece featuring the Klu Klux Klan, for instance, the Coens explore the notion that you can destroy an idea more effectively by ridiculing it than by earnestly opposing it.
Very loosely based on The Odyssey of Homer - place and character names and a few characteristics are the primary links - the story tells of the wanderings of three companions in depression era Mississippi. Although the lovingly re-created era may be long past, many of the problems - racism, political demagoguery, poverty, moral self-righteousness, to name a few - are still with us.
But the Coen's aren't making a socio-political polemic here. They are making an old-fashioned, "screw-ball" comedy. The emphasis is on the humor. It is a very literate, witty humor, as one might expect, given Homer's writing credit for the original poem, but it works across levels. There is a lot of physical comedy, even slapstick. But there are also throw-away references to film and literary culture from the classical to the contemporary.
The script, which the brothers co-wrote, is breezy, fast-moving, and sharp. Like The Odyssey, it is basically episodic, with the continuing characters and their quest the thread that ties the episodes together. Developing those characters - exposing their strengths and weaknesses and creating audience empathy, becomes the writers' main task. It is what the characters talk about, and how they express themselves that tells us most about them.
The Coen's dialogue is very effective in this respect, and never sounds "written." The script is filled with both pointed and broad barbs that deflate pomposity, illuminate hypocrisy, and poke fun at willful stupidity. But it is never manipulative, mean-spirited or condescending. The laughs develop out of the characters and the story they tell, and the "punch line" is never allowed to drive the narrative. They consistently avoid the temptation to go for the cheap laugh.
The Coen's love to work with an ensemble of actors, and actors seem to love to work with them. As a result, a number of actors have given some of their finest performances in the brother's films. Holly Hunter and Nicholas Cage in Raising Arizona, John Turturro and John Goodman in Barton Fink, Jeff Bridges (and a wild cameo from Turturro) in The Big Lebowski, Frances MacDormand and William H. Macy in Fargo, are just a few examples of the first rate performances showcased in their work.
O, Brother, Where Art Thou? is no different. George Clooney, as Everett Ulysses McGill, gives a comic performance here that should propel him to a new level of recognition. His timing is wonderful. He manages to maintain the delicate balance between allowing us to laugh at him, and laughing at himself, without resorting to mugging or playing to the camera. He brings an easy fluency to McGill's dialogue, that could easily have sounded stilted in the mouth of a less effective actor.
The persona of his character is clearly modeled after some of Clark Gable's screw-ball heroes (he even wears the carefully carved "pencil-thin moustache"). Clooney manages, as Gable did, to be both charmingly appealing and goofy. His conviction and charm make the character believable. His apparently effortless concentration on his character's goals forms a solid center around which the fantastic humor of the film can revolve.
John Turturro plays McGill's fellow convict, Pete Hogwallop - a name that could have been taken from Sturges or the Marx Brothers - a backwoods con-artist whose reach far exceeds his grasp of any given situation. Turturro plays the character as a mix of instinctive cunning and infantile selfishness, but manages to infuse him with such childish simplicity that this venality becomes laughable and even pardonable, and the character ultimately comes across as flawed but likeable.
His exchanges with McGill, who invariably gets the better of him, flesh out the image of a man going into a battle of wits unarmed. Turturro uses his malleable, highly expressive face and his long, gangly body to great comic effect. As an actor with wide experience working in ensemble pieces, some of his most effective moments are those when he is not at the focus of the action, but reacting to it on the side or in the background.
The biggest surprise in the film is the discovery of Tim Blake Norton, who plays the third member of the crew, the sweetly empty-headed Delmar O'Donnel. Norton is an indie director with four features to his credit, and an actor who has appeared in a little more than half-a-dozen films in the last decade. Most notably, he played Private Tillis in The Thin Red Line. Here, he gives what may prove to be a breakthrough performance. It is only through scrupulous restraint that he manages to avoid stealing nearly every scene in which he appears.
As the credulous innocent of the group, Delmar is a foil for both the artful, intellectual McGill and the instinctive, crafty Pete. While the others stand on the bank, McGill skeptically and Pete suspiciously, it is Delmar, the holy fool, who throws himself forward into a river-side religious revival, where he is baptized. He takes accepts the absolution of the ceremony with such childlike, wholehearted seriousness that it is left to McGill to explain to him that, although God may have forgiven his sins "the state of Mississippi may be a little more hard-nosed."
Supporting performances of special note include Charles Durning's turn as Mississippi Governor Menelaus "Pappy" O'Daniel - with his entourage of comic political advisors seeming especially appropriate after the election fiasco we have just witnessed. Musician and first-time actor Chris Thomas King plays Thomas Johnson (modeled on the legend of blues guitar great Robert Johnson), a black blues-guitarist who claims he has sold his soul to the devil in order to learn to play.
John Goodman gives a huge performance as the one-eyed bible salesman, con-man and Klu Klux Klan member, Big Dan Teague. Holly Hunter appears here in a relatively small (but very effective) part as McGill's former wife, Penny. Wayne Duvall is slimy and unctuous as Homer Stokes, the sleazeball Governor Pappy's equally unscrupulous opponent. Ray McKinnon is a seeming milquetoast who packs a mean left jab as Vernon T Waldrip, Stokes's manager and McGill's rival for the affections of the former Mrs. McGill and McGill's six daughters.
In short, there isn't a performance in the film that doesn't merit watching and that doesn't add something of substance to the film. It is the actors' delivery of the lines, their convincing belief in the characters they portray, that puts the film across.
The Coen's have worked together on a number of outstanding films. Their ensemble style, using many of the same actors and crew members repeatedly, gives them a substantial head-start over film-makers who have to begin each project from scratch. As a result, they are able now to produce a film that shows a high degree of polish on an independent budget.
The camera work is deft and effective. This is primarily a literal narrative, so the camera placements, angles and movements are designed to add emphasis and overtones to the narrative line. The Coens and their cinematographer, Roger Deakins are not using the visual images as an end in themselves - often a fault in the work of many music video and television-commercial directors who have recently moved into feature film. Although interesting angles and placements abound, they serve the semi-mythical, semi-comic nature of the story. The camera coordinates admirably with the dynamics of the story.
The art direction/set decoration/production design (I can never figure out where one begins and the others leave off) team should probably be nominated for an Academy Award for their work here. The evocation of thirties is sweetly nostalgic, with a wealth (but not a smothering over-abundance) of supporting details. The locations are marvelous, from the four-corners that appears to be quite literally "in the middle of nowhere" where the adventurers pick up the hitch-hiking Thomas Johnson, to the endless railroad track where they first encounter the blind seer, to the field with its single tree where they come face to face with Big Dan's duplicity.
The music is at the heart of the film. It propels the action, it sets the tone, it comments on the action like a classical Greek chorus, it is even supplies the plot device by which events are finally, as they must be in any good comedy, resolved. And it is wonderful music. A mix of traditional southern folk standards like "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Keep On The Sunny Side," and original music and arrangements, it adds rhythm and color to the film. My guess is that even those who ordinarily "don't like that kind of music" will for the most part be charmed by way it is presented here.
The Coen brothers and the wonderful cast and crew they have assembled have scored big here. Although completely different in setting and tone, O, Brother rivals The Big Lebowski, for pride of place as their most satisfying and successful film. It is the kind of comedy "they don't make any more," kind, thoughtful, intelligent and genuinely funny.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.