O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a movie I love on many different levels. I love the Coen Brother’s particular brand of absurdity they bring to so many of their pictures. I love the phenomenal soundtrack that carries so much of the energy of the movie. I love its rambling, episodic nature. I love the dimwitted gumption of its characters, but particularly the trio of jailbirds who happen to be our heroes—Delmar O’Donnel, who knocked over that Piggly Wiggly back in Yazoo City; Pete Hogwallop, whose crimes are fairly uncertain but are the work of a guy who couldn’t resist a jailbreak with only two weeks left to his sentence; and Ulysses Everett McGill, a would-be Renaissance man who isn’t quite smart enough to realize that he isn’t very smart at all.
The story takes place in rural Mississippi, during the Depression. But this isn’t so much a period piece as it is a kind of American myth. The Mississippi our heroes inhabit and traverse is really like no Mississippi that ever existed; it’s the amalgamation of every story we heard about the Depression, and the Old South, and the Way Things Were, all kind of lovingly mashed up. It would be so easy to make fun of this world, but this movie never does. It has its own internal logic and sense and sticks to it, even when things start getting weird. (and in every Coen Brothers movie, things always eventually get weird.) The reason for this mythic treatment is because this story is loosely based on a Homer’s Odyssey—Odysseus’ epic journey home from the Trojan War, through trial and tribulation, only to find that a small army of suitors is trying to overthrow him as the pater familias.
The Coen’s version of this is a fair bit more farcical. Ulysses convinces his fellow chain gang members Pete and Delmar to run off with him because he knows of a buried treasure near his family home. Trouble is, the Tennessee Valley Authority is going to dynamite the dam nearby and flood the whole area to make way for a hydroelectric plant, so if they don’t get that treasure in the next few days, that treasure is gone for good. Pursued by a relentless sheriff who we’re pretty sure is Mesistopheles himself, our boys are betrayed by kin, escape a burning barn, endure a general store two weeks from everywhere, meet a guitar player who sold his soul to the devil, record a surprise hit folk song, attend a bank robbery spree, are seduced by sirens, waylaid by a cyclops, have some serious family difficulties, encounter the Ku Klux Klan, enjoy their sudden fame as musicians, swing an election, are sentenced to die anyway, and are saved by the power of prayer—or really fantastic coincidence. Take your pick.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. This movie is sometimes criticized for being a bunch of great little ideas that never fully coalesce into a stronger whole, but there is a point to that approach. This story is a journey of great duration. It is meant to feel like a dozen adventures all rolled up into one the kind of thing that by its conclusion, you might be forgiven for having forgotten one of its major chapters, because so much has happened along the way. If that is this movie’s weakness, then it is also a big part of its charm, as well.
The moment of truth, then, really only emerges when you see it a second time. For in the very beginning, when our boys first go running, they jump on a railroad handcart driven by an old blind seer who gives the trio a prophecy. At first, the old man’s words seem like gobbledygook, but everything he foresees comes to pass. Maybe not as one might expect, but he does predict our heroes’ journey faithfully; we just don’t realize it until the movie is over. Only then do we see how much our heroes really only react to the things happening around them. They honestly aren’t smart enough to forge their own path. They just keep drifting downstream, maybe hit a few rocks and rapids on the way, but for the most part prevail through luck and perhaps the stewardship of higher powers that just can’t stand to see these three relatively well-meaning saps suffer too much.
In a world of such comedic tumult, it’s comforting to see that the dopiest among us have invisible training wheels. They might be men of constant sorrow, but at least by admitting it, even if only for an easy $10 to sing it into a can, they’re committing an act of honesty for which the universe eventually deems worthy of reward. The things we strive for and the things we achieve aren’t always the same. Especially if you’re a Dapper Dan man.