Director Deep Dive: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Director Deep Dive is a chronological look into a director’s filmography to see how they and their works grow and change.

With seven films under their belt, the Coen brothers had made a name for themselves as inventive directors and screenwriters. All of their films, to this point, were original stories that used their various influences as a guide. True to their nature, the duo’s first foray into adaptation was to take one of our oldest stories and place it in a completely different setting.

Set in Depression-era Mississippi, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a loose adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. A story that the brothers later admitted they hadn’t actually read. The film follows three escaped convicts, led by Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), who escape from a chain gang in search of buried treasure. Everett, along with Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), encounter several odd characters, interrupt a Ku Klux Klan meeting, and become famous musicians. All the while, the sinister Sheriff Cooley (Daniel Von Bargen) hunts them down. The story even finds time for a subplot that accurately depicts southern politicians of the time. It is a tale as focused on the era as it is our protagonists.

By giving the Odyssey a southern flair, The Coens transform it into an American myth. It isn’t a coincidence that our heroes are prisoners desperately hanging on to freedom. That desire for freedom persists just as it does in the country’s culture. The movie mixes their quest in with various aspects of Americana to create a funny, occasionally affecting tale.

O Brother was the first Hollywood production to use a digital intermediate, a process that involves digitally altering the color of the images we see. Besides being a fun-fact, the technique proved crucial to the Coen’s vision of a dusty, desolate South, turning the lush greens of the actual south into a burnt yellow. It has since become a common practice, but few films have looked this good.

Roger Deakins returns for his fifth collaboration with the Coens and uses the new tools at his disposal to create beauty in the dust. Rich with yellows and browns, the world of O Brother is warm despite how barren it can feel. Deakins spent eleven weeks fine-tuning the look of the film and that hard work pays off in every frame. From a picnic lunch that quickly turns into a mugging to the climatic musical performance at a political gala, each scene is breathtaking to look at, even when all we see is desolation.

With their previous film, the Coens used music to create the feeling of a bygone era. In O Brother, the duo reunites with T Bone Burnett to craft songs that transport us into a specific time. The soundtrack uses a mix of country, blues, folk, and gospel to capture the feeling of melancholy that permeates the film. The lead single, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” underlines this point perfectly. It’s a jaunty tune that focuses on a man preparing himself for certain death. It suits not only the film, but our three runaways, who wrestle with their own mortality multiple times.

O Brother also marks the beginning of one of the Coen’s most fruitful partnerships in George Clooney. Already a star and a year away from becoming one of the biggest on the planet, Clooney is by far the most well known of the brother’s frequent collaborators. As Everett, he uses all of his charm and good looks to create a man who never knows when to stop. He fancies himself the brains of the trio, but proves just as clueless. In other hands, Everett could verge on being too unlikable, but Clooney shows the kinder side of the character. Like many Coen’s protagonists, Everett’s schemes are beyond his capabilities, but he stands out by having good intentions and ultimately achieving his goal.

As expected, the film also contains an excellent supporting cast filled with some recurring favorites. John Turturro plays the hothead of our trio of heroes, Pete. This is far from his juiciest role, but Turturro makes the most of Pete’s heartbreaking revelation of what following Everett has cost him. In terms of newcomers, Tim Blake Nelson stands out among the pack as Delmar. The dimwitted member of the trio, Nelson gets some of the funniest lines in the movie and sells us on Delmar’s simple charms. John Goodman returns for a small, but memorable role as the one-eyed mugger/Ku Klux Klan member, Daniel Teagues. Holly Hunter teams up with the brothers for the second time to play Everett’s ex-wife, Penny. While she doesn’t have a ton to do her scenes with Clooney shine. While the political subplot doesn’t connect everything together the way the brothers hope, Charles Durning makes it a highlight with his performance as “Pappy” O’Daniel.

O Brother proved to be a success for the Coens earning positive reception from critics and audiences alike and netting Roger Deakins another in a long line of Oscar nominations. For as well-received as the movie was, the soundtrack eclipsed it in popularity. The album spent over 20 weeks atop the country music charts and took home the 2002 Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, becoming only the second soundtrack to accomplish this feat. In terms of legacy, this might be one of the rare movies where the soundtrack comes to mind first.

While the film is far from the Coen’s most cohesive work, struggling to connect all its various threads, O Brother, Where Art Thou? remains a delight. It has the right mix of wacky and heartfelt that can be hard for the brother’s comedies to maintain. It might not be their deepest work, but it doesn’t need to be when it sounds and looks this good. They might not have read the Odyssey, but the Coens made it their own all the same.

Next Time: The Coens return to their first love with the black-and-white noir The Man Who Wasn’t There.

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