Friday, 8 January 2016

Crime Week: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Prisonbreak!)

The Coen Brothers have some strange movies under their name, but O Brother, Where Art Thou stands out as one of their more bizarre creations. There have been a number of fictional stories that have tried to capture the experience of living in the middle of The Great Depression. John Steinbeck practically made a career out of writing depressing stories such as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, both of which centred around the everyday struggles to find work. Unsurprisingly, both the aforementioned books have been made into movies that also try to capture the same feelings.

What most people probably would not think of using as the base for a Depression-era story is an Ancient Greek Poem. Naturally, this is exactly what the Coen Brothers did when making O Brother, Where Art Thou, based in part on Homer's The Odyssey. Updating that poem to take place in the Depression is certainly a strange choice, and much of the narrative is subsequently changed to accommodate it. There are still distinct parallels, though, perhaps most notably the appearance of Siren-like figures (who are apparently bounty hunters) and a "cyclops" (John Goodman) who frequently causes harm to the protagonists. The movie is also made as more of a dark surreal comedy than the original poem, but this might just make more sense than one would think. It is through this strange narrative that the Coen Brothers highlight the experiences of living in the Depression.

The movie begins with a shot of a chain gang, a group of prisoners are forced into rows on both sides of a road, performing the seemingly useless task of smashing rocks with pickaxes while surrounded by mounted guards. This is hardly an optimistic moment. They are obviously sweating, exhausted, and probably experiencing muscle pains. This shot is followed by the opening credits, where the three main characters are first revealed. These include Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmer O'Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson).

These opening credits happen over a series of silent era-style title cards juxtaposed with long shots of the three protagonists running. The tone is also set by the choice to play this over Harry McClintock's The Big Rock Candy Mountain. a song about a homeless person's idea of utopia. The lyrics describe a fantastical environment where the hardships of life are left behind and a person can have everything they ever wanted. This is quite fitting to the mindset that would have been common among those impoverished by the Depression. There was often an idea that life would get better after that one job, when the reality was a bleak world of false hopes, broken promises, and injustices.

This is reflected in the film's depiction of its three main characters. Throughout the movie, they occasionally find a bright spot where it appears that things are starting to work out, only for a new unforeseen challenge to present itself. The three of them escape hoping to recover a treasure, but this also turns out to be a lie made up by McGill, making the entire setup based on one big false hope for a promising future. Even McGill, who initiated the breakout hoping to reconnect with his family, keeps trying to restart his old life only to be met with disappointment.

As the convicts try to run, they are constantly exploited by nearly everyone they meet. During the initial breakout, the most helpful person they encounter is the strange old man pushing a handcart (who gives them a means to escape). They then reach the safety of Pete's cousin Wash, who ends up turning them in for money. Later on, they encounter the "Cyclops" who is not only extorting money out of uneducated workers, but who also lures McGill and O'Donnel into an isolated patch of ground under the pretence of discussing a "business proposition" only to mug them and steal their cash, even though he probably does not actually need it.

Even the people that do not outright take advantage of the main characters often end up complicating their escape. The only real exception to this rule is Tommy (Chris Thomas King), the guitarist with whom they form the "Soggy Bottom Boys." Tommy more or less becomes one of them, though he is absent for a large stretch of the film after their initial encounter. He is similarly exploited, manipulated, and left at the mercy of others; allowing him to fall on similar ground to the leads. The only trouble is that Tommy is black, which in the racist environment of the Depression makes it hard for them to travel together.

However, the movie is not just about the jailbreak alone. There is also a side plot that further advances these ideas. This part of the film focuses on an upcoming election for the new governor. Both candidates are rich men in shiny suits, and neither one is perfect. The more popular candidate is Homer Stokes  (Wayne Duvall), a man who likes to gloss his speeches with drama and simply tells people what they want to hear. He claims to want to "sweep the state clean", has a dwarf actor play the role of the "little man" and even hires his own personal marching band. It is obvious from the start that he is too good to be true, though it is not until late in the film the nature of the facade is revealed.

Towards the end, the protagonists find themselves accidentally stumbling across a Klu Klux Klan rally, where Tommy is to be lynched. The rally is sabotaged by the three convicts (who are mistakenly identified as black because of the dim lighting and the dirt on their faces) and in the ensuing chaos the leader unmasks himself. It turns out to be none other than Stokes and his dwarf actor who are underneath. By choosing this moment to remove the mask, Stokes is ironically removing his other mask (that which he uses to appeal to the audiences) and revealing his true nature as an extreme bigot. Throughout the remainder of his screentime, Stokes proceeds to try to destroy the protagonists and accuses them of "miscegenation" (mixed-race, a controversial topic for the era).

His opponent, Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning) is comparatively more sympathetic in that he seems to have some concern for helping people and ultimately pardons the Soggy Bottom Boys, though he is hardly perfect either. While O'Daniel himself has an interest in change, it is complicated by his incompetent staff, all of whom are rich men whose only ideas amount to copying whatever Stokes does in his campaign. However, O'Daniel himself is not immune to exploiting others; he does after all take advantage of the Soggy Bottom Boys' popularity to boost his own image, as well as hiring them to perform at his rallies.

One could argue that it does work out in that he pardons them, but this is only a temporary victory and, in a way, another false hope. This is shown when they return to the McGill's family farm only to find the cops waiting for him. Even though they have received an official pardon, the Sheriff is still planning to execute them, and Tommy. It is only the fortunate timing of their arrival (the area gets flooded moments later) that saves them. The final scene of the movie involves McGill presents what he thinks is his wife's wedding ring, only to find out it was the wrong one. This once again interferes with the promising life he had hoped for. In the end, the message is simple: no matter what he does, or what happens, there is always some new challenge waiting just a little further ahead.


  1. There is always a new challenge waiting! I love this movie. It's a brilliant piece of filmmaking that perfectly suits this topic. Great job!

  2. This is a really entertaining film and one of my favorite adaptations of Greek mythology. Odysseus is often referred to as the man of many whiles and the man of many trials. In this film we get "the man of constant sorrow" which also fits. But I love how the story is twisted into a 30s era screwball comedy. And this movie is so quotable too. Just a lot of fun and with a bit more depth than most people give it credit for. Great review.