In the depths of Depression-era Mississippi, three convicts escape from their work farm and begin a race against time to reach buried treasure. Hair-obsessed, quick-tongued Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), ill-tempered, dimwit Pete (Coen brothers film regular John Turturro), and sweet, even dimmer-witted Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) are still chained together and running from the law. Before you can say "Damn, we're in a tight spot," the trio are off on a fantastical road trip fraught with peril.
To be more specific, they run into a blind oracle on a handcar, a midget with a broom, a cow on a cotton gin roof, a gopher on a stick, a blues singer who in Robert Johnson style has sold his soul to the devil, a one-eyed Bible salesman, sirens on the rocks, a KKK drill team, a reform party, two old-style river baptisms, and a toad with a case of mistaken identity.
Written by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, and loosely modeled on Homer's Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (released in 2000) weaves cleverly in and out of subplots through a series of vignettes. But you don't need to have a working knowledge of Greek mythology to appreciate the movie. The Coens brought us Fargo, Raising Arizona, and The Big Lebowski. Their anti-action-hero, antiformulaic style and tongue-in-cheek humor breathe a down-to-earth realism into their fantastical characters and settings.
Clooney's trademark Gable-esque seductive star power is juxtaposed with his surprisingly perfect comic timing. A fight scene with his ex-wife's suitor is vaudevillian and brilliant. John Turturro delivers boiling-point fits of physical comedy similar to what he provided as Jesus in The Big Lebowski. And Tim Blake Nelson's Delmar has more dignity and innocence than any other backwoods Billy I've ever seen. (Believe me, I've known my share.) Everett may be leading the group, and Pete can be overbearing and mean, but it's Delmar who talks down a ten-year-old who takes shots at them with a gun twice his size 'cause his pa told him to shoot anyone serving papers from the bank.
The Coens use a languid cinematography shot with faded sepia colors. The effect steeps the viewer in the culture and climate of the Deep South. Everything looks miserably sun-washed and dirt poor. And nearly every scene is accompanied by soulful, compelling blues, spirituals, bluegrass, and mountain music — old-time songs to salve the soul. It's a remembrance of what music used to be — an expression of life.
There are several parts of this movie so beautifully performed and filmed that I found myself held motionless, breathless — like when Pete spots the sirens (three wash maids singing on a riverbank) and the men are overcome by their beauty and song. It's nearly performance art, surreal and simple. And out in the woods, as Delmar offers Everett a barbecued gopher on a stick, they find themselves surrounded by a singing, heavenly congregation on its way to a river baptism. "No, thank you, Delmar," he says. "A third of a gopher would only arouse my appetite without bedding her back down."
The first time I rented this movie, I watched it every night for a week, fixated before my television. After I worked up the courage to confess my adolescent obsession to my sister, she easily shrugged if off. "Oh, it's easy to obsess about," she breezed. Then she quoted Clooney's character: "Besides, it's a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart."
O Brother, Where Art Thou? closes out the 2002 Top of the Park schedule on Sunday, July 7.