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Film Review from the Film Gang

January 19th, 2001- Hear Carla Freccero's review in Real Audio

O Brother Where Art Thou?

Now playing at the Galaxy 6 and Scotts Valley Cinemas, O Brother Where Art Thou? is the new film directed by Joel Coen and written by both Joel and Ethan, better known as the Coen brothers.  Well, it's also, as the credits say, "based on The Odyssey by Homer." Using the notion of a kind of anti-heroic journey down a long road, and here we also see references to The Wizard of Oz, the story is about three white cons escaped from a chain gang travelling through Mississippi during the Depression in search of hidden treasure.  George Clooney, whose name is Ulysses Everett McGill, plays that famous old Greek anti-hero himself, and his buddies are John Turturro as Pete (a staple of Coen brothers' films) and Del (Tim Blake Nelson). Their adventures take them to some strange places and produce some strange encounters, both of which are true to the spirit of the very first road movie ever, The Odyssey. 

Early on in the story they receive a prophecy from a blind Black man "the poet"--who tells them that they will discover amazing things, but not what they expect.   The rest of the encounters bear the traces of that ancient song as they have appeared in popular culture ever since, nicely imitating the spirit of The Odyssey as a story told and retold to different audiences with many variations.  The movie is also musical; the cons at one point, after picking up a  Black man named Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), who sold his soul to Satan in exchange for receiving the gift of guitar playing--record a song for money in a remote radio station recording studio.  They sing a beautiful version of "Man of Constant Sorrow," and dub themselves the Soggy Bottom Boys, becoming famous unbeknownst to them as they leave the station and continue on their journey. The whole film though treats us to breathtakingly beautiful music that mixes bluegrass, blues and gospel.  Musically, this film is a grab bag of southern cultural history; visually too, in the sepia-colored references to the photography of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. 

Other priceless scenes include a take-off on the encounter with the Sirens.  Here Coen stops the action, imitating the mesmerizing via music that those gals were so famous for when Ulysses insisted on listening.  The three guys also encounter a Cyclops (played by another Coen brothers' regular, John Goodman) who, instead of being outsmarted by our hero as in the original, rips off the good Christian boys with his opportunistic Bible-selling rhetoric.  And, of course, there's Penny (short for Penelope, get it?), Ulysses's wife, played by Holly Hunter, who has six daughters and, as one of them points out, a "suitor," echoing The Odyssey's reference to the rivals who hang out at his house. 

One of the more haunting aspects of this film is the way in which, as they travel, the three keep bumping into various Christian religious sects, cults, groups, and worshippers, including the Ku Klux Klan, who perform a terrifying and comic ritual reminiscent of that weird combination of horror and humor that Fargo evoked so well.  And the Coen brothers treat these groups with seriousness even as they criticize them, pointing out just how much this countryís history is bound up with fundamentalist, evangelical, and charismatic traditions. They also, in their irreverent and indirect way, confront us over and over with the countryís legacy of both casual and lethal racism.  This is a historically pertinent "if mythical film;" it is also beautiful, smart, funny, and entertaining.  Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright Carla Freccero 2001