O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a comedy film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, set in Mississippi during the Great Depression (specifically, 1937). It was released in 2000.
The film stars George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and Charles Durning. The movie is loosely based on the Odyssey by Homer. The film's American roots music soundtrack won a Grammy for Album of the Year.
The hero of the film is a dapper, smooth-talking con man named Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney). Everett (as he is referred to in the film) escapes from a chain gang and brings along the two fellow prisoners chained to him, Pete (Turturro) and Delmar (Nelson) with the promise of recovering buried treasure from a heist. In truth, this is just a lie he tells them to get them to come along with him back to his wife and their seven daughters before his wife marries another man.
The movie's titles acknowledge that the work is "Based upon Homer's Odyssey." The movie contains numerous references to the work, from nymphs to full quotations and paraphrases. The Coens claimed to have drawn these from memory and incidental details of Homer's epic from the 1955 filmed adaptation (Ulysses).
Episodes of the film resemble the Odyssey. Everett tends to come off much worse than his mythical counterpart Odysseus. A viewer familiar with the Odyssey may often expect the hero to triumph. Typically, this does not happen, although things turn out all right later, partly because the hero is so irrepressible, partly by sheer luck.
Ulysses is portrayed as Everett. (Ulysses is the Roman name of Odysseus).
Everett's cases of "Dapper Dan" symbolize Odysseus's pride. Whenever something bad is going to happen you see him either put on the Dapper Dan or reference his hair (pomade).
The blind black man on the push Rail Road cart is Nestor, oldest of the Trojan War heroes, who is consulted by Odysseus' son Telemachus as the first encounter with a strange or secondary character in the "Odyssey". He is repeatedly and formally described by Homer as the 'Gerenian charioteer': the Rail Road cart obviously represents the chariot. The blindness may be borrowed from the blind seer Teiresias, prominent in Sophocles' 'Oedipus Rex', (and T.S.Eliot's 'The Waste Land'). At a much later point in the "Odyssey", Odysseus descends into the underworld to seek guidance from the shade of Teiresias, just as his son had sought guidance from the supposedly wise (though unduly garrulous) Nestor. Furthermore, Homer himself was according to tradition blind and bearded.
Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) (with an eye patch) corresponds to Polyphemus the Cyclops. In the Odyssey, the cyclops eventually falls asleep and has his eye put out by Odysseus and his crew with a sharpened smoldering log. In the film, Big Dan is almost blinded by the sharpened stake of the Confederate flag but catches it, only to be crushed underneath the flaming cross that Everett cuts loose.
Another reference to the blinding of Polyphemus is made in the scene in the theater where a group of men run to Homer Stokes with a big wooden pole, only just stopping before they would hit his head. This reminds also of images on ancient Greek vases, picturing this scene of the "Odyssey".
Ulysses' wife Penelope (Penny, played by Holly Hunter) has suitors in both stories.
Disguises are frequently used in both.
"Sing to me of the man, Muse...", the line at the beginning of the film, is the first line of the Odyssey.
Pete's cousin, Mr. Hogwollop, could represent Menelaus, the Greek king whose wife Helen started the whole Trojan war by running away with a prince of Troy. In the movie, Mrs. Hogwollop has "r-u-n-n-o-f-t" just as Helen did.
The merciless sheriff (Daniel von Bargen) wanting to lynch him is perhaps analogous to Poseidon in the story of the Odyssey; this is strengthened by the presence of a hunting dog, which echoes Cerberus as well as the common mythological Hellhounds. The link between the two (Satan and Poseidon) is made when Ulysses mentions that Satan carries "a giant hay fork" (a trident); both figures are often depicted with just such an instrument. This could also be a reference to Hades, the god of the underworld (cf. Satan), which also is depicted as carrying a (two-pointed) fork. Perhaps in relation to this, he also bears an uncanny resemblance to Boss Godfrey from Cool Hand Luke. Near the end of the movie, he states "The law is a human institution," suggesting that the sheriff is not human at all. He is shown with fire reflected in his sunglasses, giving him a supernatural aura. All of the sheriff's paralleled characters embody an antagonist in possession of some degree of supernatural characteristics. Blues musician Tommy Johnson, who has reportedly seen Satan, describes him as 'white as a ghost, with hollow eyes and a mean ole hound' - the hollow eyes likely referring to the sheriff's dark glasses.
The travelers' siege in the Hogwallop barn alludes to Odysseus's dangerous course between Scylla and Charybdis when Ulysses helplessly cries "Damn! We're in a tight spot!" several times.
A trance-like progression of worshippers seeking to be baptised. Their glassy eyed placidity draws a parallel with the Lotus-Eaters of the Odyssey.
The real correlation between the Lotus Eaters and the baptizers in the movie is the relationship between baptism and the lotus flower. The Bible teaches that baptism is a symbol for "washing away sins" or washing away one's past, just as the lotus flowers made those who ate them forget about their own pasts.
Immediately after Delmar is baptized, he proclaims he will only follow "the straight and narrow from here on out." This may be an allusion to the crew of Odysseus no longer wanting to continue on their quest after an encounter with the Lotus-Eaters.
Sirens, who lure the hero with their singing, and treat him to corn liquor until he passes out. The sirens also have an element of the sorceress Circe by appearing to transform one of his companions into an animal. They also echo Odysseus's meeting with the princess Nausicaa, who along with two maidens washes clothes, bathes, and sings enchantingly in a river while Odysseus sleeps nearby; Odysseus wakens and sweet-talks Nausicaa more successfully than Everett's attempt ("You ladies are about the three prettiest water lilies....").
As Odysseus visits Aeolus on the floating island of Aeolia, Everett visits the radio station WEZY, an isolated building in the desert. He and his friends scam the blind proprietor of the radio station (Stephen Root), and record what will become their hit song and eventual salvation, but only after several misadventures; likewise, Odysseus and his crew convince Aeolus to bind all the winds except the winds to bring them home, so that they will have a straight shot to Ithaca. However, upon sighting Ithaca the crew becomes so excited they release the other winds, and the ship is dashed away from the island, only to return again after several years and similar misadventures.
Pappy O'Daniel's first name, Menelaus, is the name of the king of Sparta who fought alongside Odysseus.
The scene in the theater, when Pete tries to warn Ulysses and Delmar, parallels Odysseus' descent into the underworld, Hades. Delmar, believing that Pete had died, mistakes him (and thus also the other people in the theater) for a ghost. In this scene Pete parallels Tiresias in the underworld.
Another likely parallel to the underworld is the KKK's cross-burning ceremony. Pete, Delmar, and Everett fall down a steep incline (hence, a descent), and rise bathed in the red light of the flames of the Klan's ceremony. The flames, chanting chorus, and the grand wizard in his bright red robes all suggest a hellish place.
The challenger in the governor's race is named "Homer" Stokes (his first name is the same as the author of the Odyssey).
At one point George Nelson shoots at a herd of cattle. This may be a reference to a scene in the book where Odysseus and his fellow travelers slaughter the cows of the sun god Helios. As Ulysses warns his men against killing the sacred oxen of the sun for food, Delmar warns Nelson, "Oh, George, not the livestock!" In addition to this, in the Odyssey, Odysseus' ship is struck by a thunderbolt Ã¢â‚¬â€ killing all but our hero. In O Brother, George is executed in the electric chair, and during the parade to the execution, someone leading a cow behind the mob yells, "Cow killer!!!"
In the movie, Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar float on a coffin after the area his home is in is flooded. In the original Odyssey, Odysseus sails on a raft for 17 days before it is destroyed by Poseidon.
When we see Pappy O'Daniel discussing the upcoming campaign in the restaurant, over his shoulder we can see a bust of Homer.
The blind man in the radio station may represent Homer, the supposed blind author of the Odyssey, since, just as Homer was the first to record the story of Odysseus, the blind radio station operator is the "first" to "record" Everett and his Soggy Bottom Boys.
Boats in the original are transformed into cars in the film. When Baby Face Nelson opens his car door to shoot at his pursuers, he asks Everett to "take the tiller", meaning the steering wheel.
In the original, Ulysses' men were, of course, sailors. In the film, Everett's men have connections to water, too. Delmar is Spanish for "of the sea" -- del mar -- and Pete, a form of Peter, suggests Saint Peter, the disciple of Jesus who was a fisherman when summoned, and later walked on water.
Everett's cases of "Dapper Dan" await at his house much like Odysseus' dog.
Everett is able to recognize his house by the tire swing, a parallel to Odysseus' bed in Ithaca built out of the trunk of a tree.
The scene in which Homer Stokes is denounced is a reference to the Trojan War. After months of political fighting, Pappy O'Daniel (first name Menelaus) secures his victory by sneaking a secret weapon into the scene. The Soggy Bottom Boys are O'Daniel's Trojan Horse. Everett is afterwards pardoned, much as Odysseus was at last free to return home.
Ulysses' daughters stand for Telemachus in the Odyssey. Ulysses first meets his daughters again, before he meets his wife, as Odysseus first meets his son, and later on Penelope.
Vernon T. Waldrip is a suitor of Penny, which is similar to the multiple suitors in the Odyssey. Everett also comes back to stop the marriage and fight Vernon, as does Odysseus come back to kill the suitors. The dialogue in a scene between Everett and his daughters also gives a nod to its ancient influence. Using Latin terms, one of the girls says that Waldrip is bona fide, and Everett responds that he is the pater familias.
The movie follows the theme of in media res, which means in the middle of things. In the Odyssey, it begins by telling of Odysseus being trapped on Calypso's island without telling how he became trapped there until later in the epic. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the movie begins with Everett, Delmar, and Pete escaping from the labor farm without telling how they arrived there in the first place.
At the end of the film, Everett's wife sets him a near-impossible task of retrieving a ring. At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus still has a quest left as well: he must take an oar and bury it in the land where there are men that don't know of boats.
Other notable episodes in the film include the trio encountering:
The bank robber George "Baby Face" Nelson
a KKK lynch mob
A blues guitarist called Tommy Johnson. Popular belief is that this character is modelled after Robert Johnson (musician), in light of the crossroads deal with the Devil. However, there was a blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson, from where Robert Johnson allegedly borrowed the tale of the crossroads. It is unclear which artist is the inspiration for the character, but it could be concluded that he is a portmanteau of the two
Bluegrass musicians seemingly modeled after the Carter Family.
Homer Stokes, who leads the county's chapter of the KKK (cf. Exalted Cyclops), bears a resemblance to a real-life Klansman, William J. Simmons.
Big Dan Teague, who is also a member of the KKK, bears a resemblance to another real-life member, D. C. Stephenson.
Apart from the Odyssey, another theme of the film is the connection between old-time music (Appalachian folk and Blues) and political campaigning in the southern U.S. It also makes reference to the traditions, institutions and campaign practices of Bossism and political reform that defined Southern politics in the first half of the twentieth century. Some of this ground has been covered in films such as Ada (1961). The Ku Klux Klan, at the time a political force of white populism, is depicted in their whirling dervish cermonial dance and cross lighting. The character of "Pappy" O'Daniel, the Governor of Mississippi and host of the radio show The Flour Hour, is closely based on W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, one-time Governor of Texas and later U.S. Senator from that state. An eye-witness reports that an actual "W. Lee-O" campaign stop was exactly like those depicted in the film. The real O'Daniel was in the flour business, and used a backing band called the Light Crust Doughboys on his radio show, rather like the Soggy Bottom Boys in the film. In one campaign, O'Daniel carried a broom,(an oft used campaign device in the reform era) promising to sweep patronage and corruption away in Austin. His theme song had the hook, "Please pass the biscuits, Pappy," emphasizing the wholesome flour-connection. On two of these points, the movie differs: The O'Daniel of the movie used "You Are My Sunshine", the theme song of real-life Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, and O'Daniel's opponent Homer Stokes (as the challenger to O'Daniel, the incumbent) is the "reform candidate" who uses a broom as a prop.
Much of the music used is from Appalachian folk music, including that of Virginia folk/bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley. The music selection is drawn from spiritual music of this region, including that of the Primitive Baptist Church, and other popular religious music. There is a notable use of dirges and other macabre songs, a theme which often recurs in Appalachian Music (Oh Death, Lonesome Valley, Angel Band) in contrast to bright or corrective songs (Keep On The Sunnyside, You Are My Sunshine) in other parts of the movie. These songs lend a spiritual air and deeper allegory to the comedic film.
The lead guitarist of the Soggy Bottom Boys is a direct reference to the Delta Blues artist Tommy Johnson. Legend claims that young Tommy Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for being able to play the guitar.
Another possibility is bluesman Robert Johnson, also said to have sold his soul to the devil for guitar-playing abilities. The idea came from his songs, which had lines such as "Standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Ain't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by," like Tommy in the movie waiting for a ride at the crossroads, and "Early this morning, when you knocked upon my door,/And I said, Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go."
The title of the film is a reference to a plot element in a satirical 1941 film, directed by Preston Sturges, called Sullivan's Travels, where the protagonist (a director) wants to direct a film on the Great Depression called O Brother, Where Art Thou? that will be "...a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man... with a little sex in it." Lacking any real experience as an average man, the director sets out on a journey to experience the human suffering of the average man but is constantly returned to his rich Hollywood environment. The director's experience and intent in Sullivan's Travels are the opposite of the disadvantaged heroes in O Brother, Where Art Thou? who wish to return home and are constantly being diverted from it.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? contains references to many other films including The Wizard of Oz, "crossroads," and Cool Hand Luke. The KKK rally with the chanting and marching klansmen, and the heroes who sneak in by overpowering three of the klansmen and taking their outfits, is directly taken from the Wicked Witch's castle guards scene.
The "Everett McGill" in the name of Clooney's character may be a reference to actor Everett McGill, an actor who appeared in the film Quest for Fire. McGill portrayed the leader of a group of three early humans on a journey to find fire and bring it back to their tribe.
The Soggy Bottom Boys are the fictitious Depression era "old-timey music" trio and accompaniment from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The name Soggy Bottom Boys is probably both a reference to the famous Foggy Mountain Boys bluegrass band of the 1940s with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, but also a humorous name given the two backup singers who previously had been baptized in the film. Their hit single is the Stanley Brothers' "Man of Constant Sorrow", which also became a hit single in real life in the 1950s. The Soggy Bottom Boys eventually became so popular that the actual talents behind the music (who were dubbed into the movie) Ralph Stanley, John Hartford, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Dan Tyminski and many more, planned and performed music from O Brother, Where Art Thou? in a Down from the Mountain concert film and tour.
The voices behind the Soggy Bottom Boys were well-known bluegrass musicians: Union Station's Dan Tyminski (lead on "Man of Constant Sorrow"), Nashville songwriter Harley Allen, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band's Pat Enright. The three won a CMA Award for Single of the Year and a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, both for the song "Man of Constant Sorrow." Tim Blake Nelson, playing Delmar O'Donnell in the movie (one of the Soggy Bottom Boys) sang the lead vocal himself for the song "In the Jailhouse Now."
"Man of Constant Sorrow" has five variations: two are used in the movie, one in the music video and two in the soundtrack. Two of the variations feature the verses being sung back-to-back, and the other three variations feature additional music between each verse.
In 2003 musicians Skeewiff remixed "Man of Constant Sorrow." The song was so popular in Australia that it featured at number 96 in the Triple J's hottest 100 songs of 2003.
One of the notable features of the film is its groundbreaking use of digital color correction to give the film its sepia tinted look.
"Ethan and Joel favored a dry, dusty Delta look with golden sunsets" cinematographer Roger Deakins said. "They wanted it to look like an old, hand-tinted picture with the intensity of colors dictated by the scene, and natural skin tones that were all shades of the rainbow."
It was the fifth film that the Coen Brothers had worked with Roger Deakins on. The film was slated to shoot in Mississippi at a time of year when the foliage, grass, trees and bushes would be lush green. After shooting tests, including film by-pack and bleach bypass techniques, Deakins suggested digital mastering. The cinematographer subsequently spent some eight weeks at Cinesite fine tuning the look, mainly desaturating green and timing the digital files.
It was the first feature film to be entirely color corrected by digital means, narrowly beating Nick Park's Chicken Run.
For his efforts Deakins was recognized with both Oscar and ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nominations for his work on the film.