Hopefully our economy is not headed for a depression, like the Great Depression during which Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) is set. This film is a bit of an oddity though, present conditions aside. It was done by the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan Coen), the same duo who brought us The Big Lebowski, and I might be the only one on the planet who does not like that movie. But I love Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
After rewatching Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? recently, the strange character I live with, who is also a fan of the film, leveled the following criticism at it: it is derivative. That phrase is shorthand for the fact that it is based on Homer’s Odyssey, the Ancient Greek epic about returning soldiers from sacking Troy. The Coen brothers instead focus on three escaped convicts in 1930s Mississippi, ostensibly led by Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) and his two chain gang companions Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro, and can we just take a moment to appreciate his character’s name?) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson). I am not going to bother to try to figure out which Homeric analogs are for each. I guess Everett is supposed to be Ulysses given his name, but it does not really matter. The story is enough. The three criminals are tricked into escaping from prison by Everett, who tells them there is treasure waiting for them that he will split with them. Everett’s real goal, though, is to stop his wife from remarrying. Along the way, they are met with a series of “obSTACKles,” as the Blind Seer (Lee Weaver, and that is his actual film credit) put it. But fear not, faithful viewer, for it is also revealed to them that they will find treasure, though it will not but that which they seek.
I could almost stop right there with the Christian overtones in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, though that would hardly do justice to the plethora of such themes the film has to offer. The Coen brothers kind of poke fun at faith throughout the movie as it being for somebody who is “looking for answers” in times of desperation. Still, there really is no getting away from the idea that this is a really Christian movie. Some parts hit you over the head, others are much more subtle. Of the more overt variety is the scene where Pete and Delmar are baptized, which has Delmar proudly proclaiming that the preacher had “wershed” away all his sins. When we think of “treasure,” earthly riches usually come to mind. To say the least, the Bible is full of anecdotes that suggest that such things are fleeting, and that our true value can only be found in Heaven. Baptism is a necessary first step in that path. While Everett abstains from this act, even mocking them for their “superstitions,” this concept connects nicely with the climax of the film where the three are finally caught by Sheriff Cooley (Daniel von Bargen), who is really the devil. At the moment where Everett believes he is actually about to die, he drops to his knees and begs God for forgiveness for the hubris he had displayed throughout his life, asking that he might be blessed to see his family again. After crying out to God the water from a newly built dam sweeps over them, completing his own baptism of sorts and truly saving them once and for all. The film ends with Everett re-united with his wife (though complicated) and daughters, and a new, respectable position in society.
Given Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?‘s historical setting, a word about its treatment of the past is in order. It is pretty good in this department too. Interestingly, during their travels they pick up an African American musician named Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), who is based on a real life Mississippi Delta Blues player who also supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his ability to play the guitar. While it stretches believability somewhat for three white men to voluntarily give a black guy a ride in the South in the 1930s, race is handled elsewhere in the film. Later on, they rescue Tommy from the Ku Klux Klan, who are about to lynch Tommy. That group is portrayed in a somewhat hilarious, Keystone Cops-esque fashion. Good. I do not have very charitable things to say about that group. While integration is treated a little bit more charitably than what it would have been at that time, the rest of the film captures the spirit of the Great Depression in its look, feel, culture, and language.
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? can be safely watched by the whole family, though kids will probably be bored by it. Sorry, kiddos, nothing animated here. No pies in the face, or hula hoops, or whatever kids are into these days. While I am being facetious here, I believe this is something that, if you can convince your children to sit down for, maybe they will get something out of it. And if they fall asleep, at least you will have a moment of peace to enjoy this delightful movie. Win, win!