O Brother, Where Art Thou?

O Brother, Where Art Thou? ★★★★½

Big Rock Candy Mountain, still an absolute banger 92 years later.

This is yet another example of the Coens’ affection for inducing a cinematic double-take on a film I saw once and then mostly forgot. After this revisit, I think it may be a new all-time favorite. It’s certainly one of their less complex efforts, the location, sandwiched as it is between The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There, giving its relatively simplistic ideas a comparatively more humble appearance. I do think, however, that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is often painted as far more black and white than it really is, its shades of grey making it a really compelling film (the balance amidst the moral spectrum that’s explored here makes it almost Aristotelian, which is apt considering the classical Greek inspiration of the narrative). 

On the surface, O Brother seems to reinforce the wariness toward religion, morality, and earnesty in general that the brothers are often accused of. The film’s depiction of the cyclopian Bible salesman and the fervently pious and fervently evil KKK leader and politician certainly does no favors to the kind of evangelical Christianity the film in turn satirizes and depicts with painful honesty. Simple superstition is poked at, as well, and the kind of people who get baptized and feel their sins washed away are the same kind to believe their friend was turned into a toad by sirens. But it’s also worth considering that the counterpoint to this polarity is George Clooney in a Coen brothers film, which does little to set him up as a beacon of wisdom himself. Ulysses’ staunch embrace of logic and skepticism (what he calls his “capacity for abstract thought”) isn’t held up as any worthier of an alternative than the manipulative extremism of the conniving politicians, and indeed is painted as equally foolish. When, at the climax of the film, he prays to God with an earnesty unlike any we’ve yet witnessed only to undercut himself once his prayer has been miraculously answered, his waxing poetic on the approach of progress and the end of “old spiritual mumbo jumbo, the superstition and the backward ways” rings ironically ignorant (especially when considering the source material of the story itself). 

In the end, O Brother, Where Art Thou? seems to suggest that mankind’s collective ignorance of the truth doesn’t negate its existence. Just because we think of the devil as “red and scaly with a bifurcated tail” doesn’t mean the real thing, “white as you folks, traveling around with a mean old hound,” isn’t lurking just around the corner. In a very classical manner, the Coens don’t satirize the heart of religion and morality itself, but the prideful arrogance of those who think, in one way or another, that they’re above the moral law that makes all men equal beneath it. In this vein of thought, a near-throwaway moment becomes the thematic apex of the film—when a cow standing on top of a cotton shed floats past, interrupting Ulysses as he praises the end of superstition and a future of a rational, technologically developed world. The prophecy of the old, blind man has been fulfilled, and the folly of the human condition (its constant sorrow, if you will) is that, sometimes, man’s sight sees less than his blindness.

(The Coen Canon, 8/18)

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