A nother masterpiece coming from the Coen brothers, O, Brother, Where Art Thou? is presented as a reinterpretation of Homer’s Odyssey, although there are plenty of episodes that send to James Joyce’s monumental novel Ulysses. The setting is not Ancient Greek nor prewar Ireland, but rural Mississippi during the Great Depression, dominated by dusty roads, bluegrass fields, and wooden barns that burn like torches. However, compared to other movies that describe this period, in which the atmosphere is gloomy and tragic (The Grapes of Wrath), the Coens’ movie is filled with humor, music, and lots of allusions to other films, books, and real-life persons, which turn it into a delight for puzzle-solving lovers.
This modern Odyssey starts with convict Ulysses Everett (who is played by a young and charming George Clooney) convincing two other inmates to escape from the prison farm where they have been allocated. He doesn’t really need the company, but he is tied to Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) through the prison’s chains. In order to convince them, Everett tells them about a treasure he had hidden around his house before being sent to prison and promises them a cut from it if they help him recover it. This is enough to persuade the two inmates (Pete only had a few days before liberation) to follow him.
The route of the three checks some points from Homer’s Ulysses’ route, but the adaptation is loose. For example, right after their escape, they meet a blind man who tells them that they will never get the treasure. This character can be identified as Tiresias in The Odyssey, who is sought by Ulysses in the Underworld to tell him what to expect from his trip. Later on the road, the three evicted convicts stumble upon a religious procession next to a lake where people were being baptized, which can be associated with the lotus-eaters in The Odyssey, a group of islanders who were consuming lotus plants to obtain a state of bliss. Pete and Delmar get themselves baptized to have their sins forgiven, but Everett is not impressed by the idea.
Other Odyssey-like episodes are the conflict with a bible seller who has only one eye (John Goodman), which sends to the cyclops episode, and the encounter with a group of beautiful women by a river, who sing and mesmerize them – an allusion to the sirens episode in Homer’s book.
In parallel with their quest for finding the treasure, other two important narrative paths develop: the trio’s encounter with guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), which leads to them recording a song that makes them popular in the entire county; and Everett’s real goal of going home to his wife before she marries another man. This is actually the quest in The Odyssey, where the hero tries to go home to Penelope before one of her suitors snatches her hand. Everett’s wife (Holly Hunter) is even called Penny to highlight the allusion, but she resembles more Joyce’s Molly since she is unfaithful and has already found a man to marry with. Moreover, different from Ulysses, who has one son waiting for him at home, and Leopold Bloom, who is looking for a son, Everett needs to go home to seven daughters who were told that their father is dead by their own mother.
As is the case with most postmodern movies, O, Brother has a metafictional nature, which means that, no matter if the viewer is watching it on a small TV or a big outdoor screen, they will not be able to ignore the artificiality of the final product. This produces a lot of delight if the viewer manages to recognize the real-life persons who were introduced in the film. For example, as Everett and his fellows need to find a quick way to escape from the prison guards, they stumble into a small, chubby man who takes them into his car. This man proves to be Baby Face Nelson, the famous bank robber, who was coming from one robbery and heading out to another. The Baby Face Nelson episode is bloody and crazy, alluding to Tarantino’s violent movies.
Another character who is borrowed from real life is guitarist Robert Leroy Johnson, named Tommy Johnson in the movie. The three friends find him at a crossroad in the middle of nowhere, carrying only his guitar. The guitarist tells them that he had sold his soul to the Devil to be able to play guitar like nobody else, which is inspired by a legend that existed around the real Robert Leroy Johnson.
When Penny’s suitor (Ray McKinnon) is introduced, it immediately becomes clear that he is an image of James Joyce, an aspect suggested by the hat, the suit, the glasses, the mustache, and even the Irish accent. Vernon is the campaign manager for politician Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall), but they both get repudiated by their possible voters when they try to discredit the Soggy Bottom Boys singing group, which consists of Everett and his associates and Tommy Johnson. It seems that the two characters alluding to the authors of The Odyssey and Ulysses are pushed away from the movie to make room for the viewers’ own interpretation of the story, which is one of the bases of postmodernism, first discussed by Roland Barthes in his essay The Death of the Author.
Last but not least, even the title sends to a different movie, emphasizing the idea of anxiety of influence. Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels serves as the source. In this 1941 American comedy, which was, in the meanwhile, included on the list of cinematographic masterpieces, the main character – a director – decides to do a movie beginning from a novel called O Brother, Where Art Thou?. For the movie to be as realistic as possible, he chooses to live for some time on the roads so he can know the sorrows of humanity. The title of the Coens’ movie suggests that this could be the movie made by the director in Sturge’s film.
The movie’s heart is the bluegrass music, which would sound amazingly from large speakers on a movie night. The Soggy Bottom Boys sing A Man of Constant Sorrow in a box, and the song becomes a hit that conquers the souls of all the people in Mississippi. Nevertheless, the chances of this production turning into a drama are cut by the many funny episodes and ironic lines. Everett’s obsession with a specific brand of hair ointment and his habit of wearing a hair net, even when he is on the run and cannot keep himself clean or decently dressed, is hilarious. The episode in which they stumble into a Ku Klux Klan procession is both delightful from a visual point of view and extremely amusing as the movie highlights the ridicule of the costumes and movements.
O, Brother can already be considered a classic, although there were critics who found it too divergent and difficult to follow as a cohesive story. It is true that it isn’t the traditional Hollywood movie that goes through specific phases and tries to convince the viewer as much as possible to forget that they are watching a movie, but this is the charm of any of the movies produced by Joel and Ethan Coen. Fargo isn’t simple, and The Big Lebowski isn’t simple, and this is what turns them into masterpieces of postmodern cinema. The dense structure of allusions makes it a nice puzzle to solve, but this doesn’t mean that the directors’ visions get lost in it. As already stated, the connection to The Odyssey is loose, and somebody who has no idea about the ancient story of Ulysses’ journey could watch the movie and still see it as a great story.