The odyssey of Odysseus is one of the oldest tales in western history, and one so ingrained in the pop culture consciousness that there are few people out there who are not at least familiar with the story, even if they have never sat down and read Homer’s epic poem. Although several film makers have tackled Homer’s magnum opus over the years, the Coen Brothers’ own re-interpretation of the work, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ (2000), proves to be one of the more interesting and entertaining versions of Odysseus’s quest to return home to his wife, Penelope.
The film stars Coen regular George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill (Ulysses being the Latin equivalent of Odysseus), a Depression-era convict who escapes from a Southern chain-gang with two dimwitted criminals, Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), in hopes of reconciling with his wife, Penny (Holly Hunter), after learning that she is set to remarry another man.
During their journey through Mississippi, the trio loosely follow in the footsteps of McGill’s namesake, encountering a “Cyclops” (John Goodman as Daniel Teague, a bible-salesman whose blind in one eye), a trio of “sirens”, and an unscrupulous Sheriff (Daniel von Bargen) who, like the god Poseidon in Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’, seeks to undermine and destroy Ulysses for his perceived arrogance. Part re-interpretation, part period-piece, the Coen Brother’s ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ exemplifies the brothers’ penchant for combing grim humor with dramatic suspense, all the while populating their world with characters that are too quirky and strange to be real, but humanized enough so that we can’t help but sympathize with their plight and trials.
Clooney is fantastic as the fast-talking and arrogant McGill, his back-and-forth patter with Turturro’s Pete, Nelson’s Delmar, and practically every other character he encounters providing much of the humor that pervades the Coen’s strange little dramedy, while Tuturro and Nelson hold their own, and prove themselves to be the perfect foil to Clooney’s quick-tongued insults and jibes.
Truth be told, all of the actors in the Coens’ ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ (and, to a certain extent, all of their movies) deserve praise and accolades for their performances, each actor and actress doing justice to their role (no matter how small or large it might be), and providing the Coens’ film with the eccentric and weird performances that populate nearly all of their films.
One aspect to set ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ apart from the other films in the Coen Brothers’ canon however is the use and presence of music: never before (and never since) has a film’s soundtrack been given so much attention and presence in a Coen Brothers’ production than in their re-interpretation of Homer’s epic. The music, assembled and produced by Joseph Henry "T Bone" Burnett, is both catchy and period appropriate, both reinforcing the time-period of the film and, to a certain extent, almost becomes a character in and of itself.
‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ is strange even by Coen Brothers standards, and though it might not rank as highly as some of their other acclaimed films, it’s still a fun and entertaining movie to see. Whether you’re familiar with Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ or not, the Coen Brothers’ ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ is sure to entertain, and mayhaps even net the ‘bluegrass’ genre a few more fans as a consequence.
Find the nearest Blockbuster (assuming they still exist) near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.