Last week the New York Film Festival held a 15th anniversary screening of Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), which I hadn’t seen it since its initial release. I remember liking it, but it didn’t get to me the way Blood Simple (1984) or Fargo (1996) had. But when I saw it listed on this year’s NYFF schedule, I was interested, especially since the Coen brothers and unspecified cast members were slated to be at the screening.
Films on the main slate of the NYFF are held at Alice Tully Hall, where seating is reserved. My seat was centrally located in the second row, which is a bit closer than I usually prefer. At this distance, it initially feels like the movie screen might fall on top of you, but the eye and mind tend to adjust pretty quickly. And as it turned out, I was glad to be this close to the stage. Before O Brother began, Kent Jones, director of the NYFF, introduced the Coens, who in turn brought out the film’s cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and actors John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, and finally George Clooney himself. This was quite a rush, and had me hot-wired for the film itself.
I was amazed by how much I enjoyed O Brother, Where Art Thou? this time around. I thought it was great, especially when compared to most of what’s in theaters these days. Of course, knowing that the filmmakers were in attendance might have made me more disposed to like it, but I don’t think so. The Coens have a wonderfully off-kilter way of looking at things, and this film is no exception. Loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, and relates the surreal adventures of three convicts who escaped from a chain gang. The three are Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), a hapless and somewhat dimwitted trio chained together at the ankles. The ostensible reason for their escape is to recover a cache of money Ulysses claims he took when he knocked off an armored car.
The entire cast is excellent, and most have been in other Coen films. John Turturro had already been in three: Miller’s Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), and The Big Lebowski (1998). Tim Blake Nelson had been in films and television since 1992, but this was his first starring role, as well as his first Coen film, and he killed it. O Brother was also George Clooney’s first film with the Coens, followed by Intolerable Cruelty (2003); Burn After Reading (2008); and the upcoming Hail, Caesar! (2016).
John Goodman previously was in Raising Arizona (1987) and The Big Lebowski. Here he plays”Big Dan” Teague, a one-eyed Bible salesman who mugs Ulysses and later turns up under a hood at a Ku Klux Klan rally. Holly Hunter, who was also in Raising Arizona, plays Ulysses’ ex-wife Penny. Returning to her and his children is the real reason for Ulysses’ escape. Charles Durning especially shines as Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel, the incumbent governor of Mississippi, who’s running for another term. His dance on stage near the end of the film is a joy.
In addition to references and parallels to The Odyssey — many of which I probably didn’t get — O Brother Where Art Thou? brings in two storylines that add a lot to the texture of the film. Chris Thomas King, a real-life blues musician, plays Tommy Johnson, first seen wearing a natty suit and carrying a guitar. After our heroes pick him up at a country crossroads and give him a ride, Tommy proceeds to tell them he sold his soul to the devil in order to be a great guitar player. This immediately evokes the real-life Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul at such a crossroads. Tommy becomes a fourth member of the travelers. At another point, Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar encounter George “Baby Face” Nelson just after he’s robbed a bank. Nelson is played with unrestrained exuberance by Michael Badalucco. In brief notes I made when I first saw O Brother in 2000, I’d written “There’s a great moment when a cow gets hit by a speeding police car.” You can see this after George gives the boys a lift in the following clip. I’d forgotten about this until I saw it again last week. It really has a punch.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? was filmed by Roger Deakins, a British cinematographer. If you don’t know his name, you certainly know his work. With the exception of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Deakins has shot every Coen brothers film since Barton Fink in 1991 — eleven total including the forthcoming Hail, Caesar!, to be released next year. In addition to Coen films, he’s been director of photography for many other films, including The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Dead Man Walking (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Skyfall (2012), and most recently, Sicario, currently in theaters. I was surprised to see how many there were.
For those who are interested, here’s an interview with Roger Deakins from Filmmaker magazine this past July.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is filled with great period music, produced by T-Bone Burnett. He worked on the music selection with the Coens even before the script was completed, and the soundtrack was recorded before the start of filming. A subsequent album of the music won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001. Musicians who contributed to the soundtrack, including Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, Alison Kraus, and many others, went on a tour called Down from the Mountain, performing music from the film. A documentary of that title was made by D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and Nick Doob.
Here is a clip of Clooney, Turturro, and Nelson singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” near the end of the film. The brief dialogue has been dubbed into French, but this should not distract.
After the film ended, I was preparing to leave when I saw chairs being set up on stage in front of the screen. I hadn’t realized there would be a Q&A, but there was no way I was going to miss this. It was great. I was especially impressed with what a class act George Clooney is in person. He comes across as funny, quick, self-deprecating, smart, and genuinely a nice guy. I know he’s an actor, and he has a public persona, but it feels pretty authentic to me. It was a memorable night and I’m glad I was there. – Ted Hicks
In the photo below, left to right: Roger Deakins, George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Kent Jones (moderator)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is available for streaming or purchase from Amazon, and for rental from Netflix. I hope you’ll rediscover it, as I did.