O Brother, Where Art Thou?
A Film by Joel and Ethan Coen
Directory of Photography Richard Deakins
I recently watched Billy Wilder's The Apartment again, and we were commenting on how no one working in Hollywood creates the kind of sharply defined, idiosyncratic characters that populate movies from the postwar era. "Well," I noted to general agreement, "except the Coen Brothers." For anyone who has more than a passing interest in film, there's no excuse to not have watched each of the brothers' releases.
The brothers' films require of the viewer a strong leap of faith into a mythic world, where despite surface similarites to some piece of reality, apocryphal events occur with regularity. O Brother is the strongest argument yet for this. It recreates a mythic -- not storybook -- South that never quite existed. Racism is a societal evil, but not one that seems to infect any of our three white southern main characters. It's sunny, except when the plot requires rain. Bodies of water don't fill with a trickle but a gush.
O Brother is the story of Adam (George Clooney) and his two companions in a prison escape and run to the north. Much has been made of the comparison of O Brother to Homer's The Odyssey, basically because they're both mythic road pictures. It really doesn't do to talk more about the specifics of the plot, because events follow on one another from the beginning.
The music from O Brother has probably brought in as many viewers as the trailer, and the accolades for it as film music are well-deserved. The "old-timey" music is perfectly suited to the sense of the middle South that the brothers are recreating, and helps directly drive the plot -- a blissful but rare case of someone thinking about the music while still writing the screenplay.
The usual suspects of Coen Brother movies are around -- John Goodman once again shows why the brothers count on him for filling out a certian kind of character in their films -- and George Clooney earns another well-deserved feather in his acting cap. He doesn't succumb to the temptation to keep his fundamentally flim-flamming character too sympathetic. Most of all, surprisingly for someone with his looks, he doesn't hesitate to make fun of his own character when it's appropriate, such as a hilarious fight scene (another reason to give alms at the Coen altar is that the brothers will set up a gag, execute it, and move on -- the utter opposite of the painful milking of gags in the Austin Powers films).
The film is stunningly shot and composed -- the extensive color correction (done for the first time completely in a digital suite, see the Millimeter article) pays off. This is expected at this point for the brothers' films with Cinematographer Richard Deakins, but O Brother moves to a high point.
This is the most enjoyable Coen Brothers film since Fargo . Go see it, revel in the yellow-tinged middle south of the middle years (set in the 30s), laugh at the acting and gags, clap along to the great soundtrack, but don't ever forget you've entered a mythic land where the unusual may happen with startlingly accurate timing.
There are two kinds of Coen Brothers movies: the ones that end, and the ones that explode in a burst of Deus ex Machina.* Most often, the ones that explode simply stop making sense, no matter how compelling the buildup. The Adventures of Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, and to a certain extent The Big Lebowski all have this issue. O Brother shows the Coens pulling off the Deus ex Machina ending but still making sense.
* Deus ex Machina (lit. "machine of the gods") refers to events in a film or play that aren't the result of actions or decisions by the characters, but instead come about because of arbitrary outside actions. Mainstream screenwriting stresses avoiding these kinds of events for the climax of a film, feeling that the audience will be more satisfied if the ending comes about because of the characters' actions rather than acts of nature.