The genuine Coen product?

Simon Enticknap

For a long time before I saw this film I knew what I was going to see, even when I knew nothing about it. “I’m going to see the new Coen Brothers’ movie,” I said, and people understood what I meant, though they knew as little about it as I did. “What’s it called?” they said.

That’s what it’s like with the Coen Brothers. Everybody knows what it’s about before they know anything about it (unlike the typical Coen Brothers’ protagonist who should always expect the unexpected, remain frozen in a reaction pose of horror, bewilderment and fascination at whatever is coming down the track). The darkened humour, familiar faces (John Goodman, John Turturro), a knotty plot to unravel, the careful use of landscapes and background colour—the Brothers may move historically and geographically but, emotionally and stylistically, they stick to a well-worn groove.

This time we’re in Mississippi, enjoying a picaresque prodding at the prototypical parts of deep Southern sub-cultures—manacled chain gangs and gangsters with tommy guns, the Great Depression and old time radio, hobos and the Klan, hill-billies and Baptists; XXXX moonshine from a demi-john and pies left to cool on the window sill—these are a few of their favourite things. There’s a down-at-heel hero (George Clooney) battling dark forces to realise a simple dream, play-acting alongside his quirky sidekicks against a sepia-toned backdrop-all mustard yellows and washed out whites-and some rip-snorting musical interludes.

There’s also a Homeric underpinning which is kinda neat, a source of in-jokes for those who know their Homer—and no doubt there are many such allusions for the cognoscenti to collect—although the film has nothing instructive or informative to say with these comparisons. It’s like a reflex action, responding to hidden references as if that, in itself, is somehow sufficiently illuminating, the means to an effect. The Coens take the collective comic unconscious and hold it up to a dappled light, banking on a frisson of familiarity, the tiny pinpricks of pleasure which come from half-recognising a clue and making the connection. Their films trade in these moments of mutual recognition, sparks of shared sentiment like flashbulbs in a darkened stadium.

The musical accompaniment, one of the film’s strengths, also highlights its weakness as a cinematic experience. Instead of adding to the visual intensity of the film, the emotional pull of the songs seems to suck it dry, so that what we get is a series of musical fixes operating on a law of diminishing returns. The various set-pieces are unveiled with an almost anthropological fastidiousness but, ultimately, the only image which remains is that of a silver CD soundtrack spinning softly somewhere on a state-of-the art sound system.

It may look, feel and sound like a genuine Coen product but, in the end, O Brother doesn’t deliver as expected. Maybe that’s just as well; it goes to show that even when they’re being predictable, the Brothers can still throw in a surprise or two.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?, writers Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, director Joel Coen, distributor United International Pictures

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 14

© Simon Enticknap; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001