I remember asking for "O Brother" for my birthday or Christmas, one or the other, and of course received it, as my parents could obviously note my infatuation with it. When it did come into my possession on a VHS tape, I sat down to watch the film EVERYDAY for the next week or so. It's impression upon me was that great. I've come close to similar viewing intensities with movies like "The Matrix" (which is probably my #2 spot and deserving of its own article) and perhaps "Jaws" which is one I remember my brother watching several days in a week at one point in his life, but nothing like "O Brother". It seems only fitting that years later I regard the Coen Brothers as writers, producers, directors and, generally a knock out creative team, who ranks among the greatest of this generation. If you've been living under a rock and don't know what I'm talking about, see The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men (also at the top of my list), Raising Arizona, or Burn After Reading, to name a few.
There are a number of reasons why I regard this piece of work as brilliant, despite some few minor plot holes that don't add up. I think the biggest draw for me was the music. Like a movie from the mind of Quinton Tarantino, "O Brother" was designed around the soundtrack, and it shows. Years before I picked up a guitar, the music of "O Brother" connected me to the blues before I even knew what the blues were. The gospel, folk and bluegrass aspects where also elements that I took note of, as well as the powerful dirges used throughout.
The connection the film gave me to the past of Mississippi was also important. The movie is shot in the time of the Great Depression with a post slavery climate and blazing hot summer heat reflecting the hard living of the period. Seeing the contrast between the state's vast landscapes in scenes of open country and segments of small town life put me in the era. Both aspects are great to see, but it is the shots of the rural areas, the wood lands, and the desolate fields, all areas that strike me in real life, that I enjoy the most. When you combine the creative forces behind the whole project, the music and humor, the elements of Homer's "The Odyssey" with a stellar cast featuring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman,Charles Dunning, and a wealth of other colorful minor characters, you get a blockbuster picture that stands the time of cinematography.
I wrote this article after watching the movie for the first time in over a year the other night. I recently saw some scenes of a 1990's version of the Odyssey, which motivated me to pick up the book, as well as a graphic novel version. I knew the readings would give me new insight into an already beloved film. All I want to do, is write about the different scenes in order and describe what makes them so great to me. It is merely my opinion and my interpretation of the film. If you read the article and have never seen the film, nor do you plan too, then perhaps my greatest hope is that you will change your mind, even after I have uncovered the plot. It all starts with the sound of hammers on rocks, as chained prisoners sing to the traditional song of "Po Lazarus", a tune deeply rooted in blues music, as armed deputies wielding fire arms patrol the unit on horseback.
The atmosphere quickly shift from serious and exhausting as the first sound of guitar notes come into play with traditional vintage record quality. "The Big Rock Candy Mountains" by Harry McClintock plays in its entirety as the three escapees, Ulysses Everett McGill, Delmar O'Donnell, and Pete Hogwallop, take to the train tracks to avoid pursuit and to reach a fortune Everett has stowed in his homeland before a scheduled man made flood hits the valley.
It is here "O Brother" has it's first important scene for me. After missing their chance to board a moving train, the trio spots a lone man operating a push platform along the tracks and run over to him, chains clinking as they move in unison, to join him. The man grants them permission to board without seeming to look at them. After they are seated, they look up to find the old man is blind. I noticed in this past viewing that the film has several characters, all of whom are blind or "sightless", and all seem to possess a connection with the spiritual world in different ways. More on this later.
"You work for the railroad grandpa?", Delmar asks.
"I work...for no man." Comes the man's distant reply.
"Got a name do you?"
"I have...no name."
Just as Everett, skeptical, science driven, and by all accounts an atheist, is about to give the old man a lesson in business marketing, the blind man cuts him off by prophasizing their hunt for a great treasure which they will find, though it is not the treasure they seek and the road to it will be long and dangerous. "You shall see a cow...on the roof of a...cotton house," the man says, and tells them they will press on despite the many obstacles they will encounter. A prelude to "Hard Time Killin Floor" sets the mood as the men stare at the blind man who never lifts his gaze as he speaks, lifting and pressing the lever which drives them forward along the tracks. At the end of monologue, the shot pulls back to one of the many gorgeous angles of the Mississippi country side, the newly free men looking out into the distance as the squeaking of the transport and the hushed acoustic guitar blend together to provide for the transition into the next segment.
When the trio met up with Pete's cousin, Wallace, he frees them from their chains after a brief, unemotional greeting between the two family members who have not seen each other in over a decade.
"How ya been Wallace," Pete asks. "S'been what, 12, 13 years?"
"Yep," Wallace says. "I s'pect you want dem chains knocked off."
And that's the extent of their hello. They find themselves at the dinner table talking shortly, and I wondered, as I have many times watching this scene: Has Wallace already made his mind about turning the gang in for the bounty? I think I found my answer this time with another shot in the following scene where the men are sitting around listening to "You Are My Sunshine" on the radio. In this scene, Everett is combing his hair and Wallace looks over at him with a look of discomfort and unease. I think this is about the time he has made up his mind.
Everett, Delmar, and Pete get away from the law just in time and make their way to the outskirts of some wooded area as they debate their broken car that they have acquired from Wallace. Here we see a great minor role in the store clerk who doesn't have the parts for the vehicle, nor Everett's desired brand of hair treatment.
"I don't want FOP, god damn it. I'm a Dapper Dan man."
The clerk remains monotone throughout and is unmoved by Everett's outburst, and it really shows the classic country zen that old timers pick up dealing in a trade they have performed for countless years. Though the character is only on screen briefly, he contributes a lot to the vibe of the time and gives greater insight into Everett Ulysses's own personality. The crew considers their options in the woods over a course of freshly cooked meats.
As they are sitting around they begin to hear angel like voices on the wind as they are suddenly surrounded by men and women dressed in white gowns moving past them in slow steady, strides among the trees.
"As I went down to the river to pray, studyin' about that good ole way, and who should wear the star lit crown? Good Lord, show me the way."
"What the devil give you for your soul Tommy?" Everett laughs.
"Well, he taught me how to play this guitar real good."
"Oh son," Delmar says. "For that, you traded your ever lovin' soul?"
"Well I wasn't usin' it," Tommy replies.
It is in this exchange that the men find out what the devil looks like, as Tommy describes his features. Surprisingly, he claims the devil is white and travels around with a "mean hound dog." He then tells the men he is on his way to Tishomingo where he has heard rumors a man will pay good money to sing into a can.
"He'll pay you extra," Tommy says, "If'n you play real good."
"Tishomingo, huh?" Everett asks thoughtfully. "How much he pay?" Now, I have to stop to make an aside here for this part. The scene jumps after this question to the radio station, but I just want to state that I would have loved to see this conversation play out further. How the hell would it have gone?
"Tishomingo, huh? How much he pay? Cause it just so happens, we're a talented group of singers, recently escaped from a chain gang and I have a hit song that's sure to go over really well. If we practice in the car here for the next couple minutes or so that it will take to get there, I think we could nail it in our first try!"
Anyway, the group gets their destination where they meet the next blind man of the movie, who is the owner and recorder at the station. After convincing the man they are experienced in old timey material, the men break into the film's most popular number, "Man of Constant Sorrow". Back when the movie came out and I had no idea there was a soundtrack, I rewinded my VHS tape over and over to hear this three minutes of musical mastery. Just a guitar, some bluesy verses, and some call and return backing vocals. It didn't' need anything else. A while back I learned the song on guitar and did my best to know the verses. It was one of my favorite songs to play at shows, as it still holds a lot of power for me, and the crowd always seems to get a kick out of it. I was particularly thrilled at one show a couple months back when I convinced two of my friends to take the stage with me and perform the backing vocals. It went great, and my friends kept up even though some of the verses I butchered or made up as we went along.
Hard time's is here
An ev'rywhere you go
Times are harder
Than th'ever been befo'
You know that people
They are driftin' from do' to do'
But they can't find no heaven
I don't care where they go
The next day the three encounter a flood of activity as they meet George Nelson who takes them on a bank robbery. When a woman calls him "baby face" the eccentric and wild Nelson becomes deflated by the remark. Later that night, Nelson solemnly announces he is going to take off. I had never noticed it before, but Everett gives Pete a quick nod as Nelson stands up. I had a sudden realization that they aimed to rob him right then and there when he turned to go. However, Nelson, in his depression, tells the three they can keep his share of the loot. The looks of astonishment on Everett and Pete's faces seem to confirm their original intentions. Nelson makes his exit, and they go on without him. Meanwhile, the radio station owner has been playing the track the gang cut in the studio under the band name, "The Soggy Bottom Boys" and the song is becoming ever more popular as Everett, Delmar, and Pete make their way further and further across Mississippi.
Driving down the road in a stolen car, the men, like the crew from Ulysses's ship in the Odyssey, are drawn to rocky waters as three beautiful woman sing an entrancing song. The men are drugged and Pete is hauled off for the bounty placed on his head by the law. Everett and Delmar awake to find only a toad in Pete's cloths. Delmar believes the women have used magic on Pete to turn him into a frog and quickly scoops him up before leaving the riverside.
Soon, as the picture show starts up again, a hushed voice comes from behind Everett and Delmar.
The two turn around and squint into the darkness, trying to make out the owner of the voice. It is Pete. Like the dead of Hades coming to give Ulysses advice for his journeys, he seems to have returned from the ether to warn his friends of the dangers ahead. Everett and Delmar stare dumbly.
"Do...not...seek...the treasure. They're settin up an ambush. Do...not...seek...the treasure." He glances around, trying to stay unnoticed.
The two men are now fully turned in their seats and Delmar leans forward, shock on his face.
"We...thought...you was...a toad."
Delmar leans even further across the back of his chair and raises his voice.
"Weee...tttthought...you was...a toad!"
Their communication is severed when the deputy calls for silence and the men settle in to their seats. That night, Everett and Delmar break Pete out of his confines where he is being held captive. It is in this reunion that Pete tells the two he sold them out for the treasure in order to avoid being hung by the sheriff. When Pete begins to weep of his betrayal, Everett confesses that there never really was a treasure. He lied to the two because they were all chained together and he had to return home before his wife married Walter. His whole escape is aimed at the stopping of the soon to occur wedding. Pete, who only had two weeks left on his sentence and will likely die in confinement if captured again, rushes Everett in a rage. The men stumble down a hill and into the proximity of a Ku Klux Klan rally, where they spot Tommy Johnson about to be hung.
This scene makes for another haunting blues dirge, sung acapella by Ralph Stanley, entitled "O Death". In the film, the Klan leader sings the song amongst burning crosses and marching members, his hands raised over all as he stands upon a wooden platform:
Won't you spare me over til another year
Well what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands takin' hold of me
Well I am death, none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
Whoa, death someone would pray
Could you wait to call me another day O, Death
Won't you spare me over til another year
Big Dan stands motionless as the projectile hurdles towards his one eye. At the last moment he catches the stake an inch from his eye ball and the collective Klan is awed by his timing. While they are distracted, Everett clips the cable of the burning cross and it falls over, landing on the Bible salesmen ending his involvement in the film.
The four amigos, now reunited again, agree to go to the Stokes campaign dinner where Penny is attending. Disguised as musicians, they infiltrate the building, much like Ulysses's disguise into his own kingdom to reclaim Penelope from her wretched suitors. Pete and Delmar buy some time by breaking into an impromptu performance of yet another great song, "In The Jail House Now".
"Is that so?" The man questions. "Well, we ain't got a radio." And with that, the three grave diggers come out of the holes, and begin to sing a sorrowful dirge, "Lonesome Valley", encouraging the men to prepare for their journey into the next world.
Oh, you gotta walk that lonesome valley
Oh, you gotta go there by yourself
Nobody else can walk it for you
You gotta walk, walk it by yourself
You must go and stand your trials
You have to stand it by yourself
Nobody else can stand it for you
You have to stand it by yourself
A trickle of water streaks past them on the ground. Another and another. A loud crash is heard and all present turn to stare down into the forest. A massive wave pounds through the woods, flooding the area and sweeps its way across all present in the yard. "Lonesome Valley", plays on as various items float by in the water. A gramophone, a large supply of Dapper Dan cans, the sheriff's hound dog, and so on. All three men resurface and grab to the wooden door floating by. Pete and Delmar begin ranting of God's mercy, hearing their prayers and taking pity on their souls. Everett, however, is not impressed. He tells the men they are foolish and reminds them that the valley was scheduled to be flooded just as he had told them previously. The land would be renewed with electricity and other modern technologies in the near future. As he finishes his speech, he sees a cow, standing atop of a roof. Everett looks at the cow for a few seconds in wonder. The viewer almost thinks he will have a sudden realization of the past prophecy foretold to him, but then he quickly looks away to spot Tommy, who is attempting to stay atop the roll top desk where Penny's ring is stashed.
The film's final scene sees Everett and Penny walking down a street town discussing their re-marriage when Penny realizes the ring Everett has brought back is not the right one. She storms off upset with Everett trying to convince her that the other ring is long gone. She again blows him off and picks up her pace, their 7 children being pulled along in a row by a string around their waists. The girls sing a song that carries the movie out and the youngest of Everett's daughters, who is last in the line, stops on the railroad tracks looking into the distance. As the rope around her waist tightens, she is pulled after the girls and we see what she has seen. The lone traveling man is moving away from town on the railroad tracks, still on his push platform, and humming along to the girl's tune.
"O Brother Where Art Thou", is a tale of epic proportion for me. Every time I watch it, I marvel at how all the events that take place in the film do not even amount to two hours of screen time. Yet still, it feels jam packed with one grand scene after another, filled with interesting characters who are well scripted, incredibly deep and moving music selections, fun cross references to Homer's Odyssey, and great shots from all around Mississippi. It really is an ace of a movie. One that I will no doubt see many more times in my life with new discoveries in every viewing. This is my tribute to the Coen Brother's masterpiece. Here's to hoping they create many more grand adventures in the future, and that this particular film will be a landmark for all others seeking a great treasure in the world of cinema.
Care for some gopher?