The Coen Brothers’ 2000 film “O Brother Where Art Thou?” is a comedy set in Depression era Mississippi, where three convicts (Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar) escape from the chain gang to seek treasure, a future, lost family, and home. Allusions to “The Odyssey” are frequent as it claims to be based on it, as are similarities to Preston Sturges’ heartwarming comedy “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) for which the film pays homage.
Though unsure how to categorize the enigmatic brothers¾goof-ball opposites making films for the fun of it or genius filmmakers avoiding pretentious labels by dismissing any deep analyses? ¾critics at the time generally agreed the film was artistic, original, and equally zany as it was clever<1>. Some critics believe the creators’ disclaimer that “O Brother” should not be taken too seriously, because they had never actually read the Odyssey, for which the plot is loosely based, and did little research into the historical period, mostly drawing from their previous knowledge of iconic characters, events, legends, and classic films<2>. So, should we really be holding up this Coen Brothers film to the same level of historical integrity to which we hold other period films that actually claim to be accurate? While the Coen Brothers may try to downplay the notion of sub-textual messages by saying that what you see is what you get, even close friends and colleagues believe that their movies are full of intent and deep, thematic meaning. “O Brother” is no exception, believes critic Jonathan Romney<3>. Before production began, the entire script was storyboarded, with nearly every shot in the film matching up to these initial plans. The brothers do not simply wing it as they go. And music, says Ethan and Joel, was integral from the start, claiming that specifically chosen songs drove the direction of many of the scenes during the scriptwriting process. Although practically self-proclaimed as tongue-in-cheek, even a comedy can resonate with purpose and significance, as this film clearly does.
Besides this, “O Brother” was considerably successful both in ticket sales (grossing over $74 million worldwide) and in Oscar nominations (Best Cinematography and Writing) not to mention the even greater success of the soundtrack (winning a Grammy, promoting musical tours, and reviving Bluegrass and Folk music in mainstream America)<4>. The Coens’ own dubbing of the film as “The Lawrence of Arabia of Hayseed Films”<5> or by others as a musical “buddy” comedy may describe it well, but the creators’ choice of era (and their consistent portrayal of it cinematically) labels this film as a big-budget period film. It is unavoidable, therefore, that viewers will watch the movie and, to different degrees, absorb it as part of their knowledge of the Great Depression era. Young people especially might watch the KKK scene, for instance, and then store it as a mental reference for what real KKK rallies were like in the 1930s. It is for this reason, most importantly, that “O Brother, Where Art Thou” should be evaluated as a secondary source with which to look at the past and as a primary source to understand the time in which it was made.
<1> Jonathan Romney, “Double Vision” The Guardian.co.uk, May 19, 2000.
<2>Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, and Charlie Rose, “Charlie Rose: December 27, 2000.” Google
<4>The Numbers: Box Office Data, Movie Stars, Idle Speculation, “O Brother, Where Art
<5> Ethan Coen.