Starring: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Running Time: 107 mins
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an American film about three escaped prisoners who go on a search for hidden treasure in the Deep South in the 1930s.
Artistically, this film is brilliant. Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography is stunning to look at throughout, whilst the Coen Brothers’ use of old American folk music makes for a very engrossing experience. However, it’s by no means the Coens’ best film, as its story flounders throughout by never providing the brilliant dark comedy that we’re so accustomed to seeing, despite the film’s efforts to make it so.
However, there’s a lot to love about this film, and the visuals are right at the top of that tree. Roger Deakins is an expert cinematographer, and this film is a key example of his brilliance. Working alongside the Coen Brothers to create some absolutely stunning visual set-pieces, Deakins’ use of sepia tone throughout the film (a technique that was rare at the time) is brilliantly effective, and pulls you right into the Deep South of the 1930s.
The Coen Brothers’ style here is excellent too. As I said, their work with Deakins creates a series of beautiful landscapes and establishing shots, however it’s their dynamic directing that gives the film a good amount of energy too. I wasn’t too impressed with the actual story’s energy, however the way that the Coens portray the dog-eat-dog world of Depression-era America makes for both great drama and good fun, by far the most entertaining part of the film for me.
The rest of O Brother, Where Art Thou didn’t blow me away, but I still enjoyed a lot more. The performances, for example, are good fun, and George Clooney, John Turturro and especially Tim Blake Nelson’s exaggerated turns as three moronic prisoners are pretty fun to watch throughout, even if it does somewhat cheapen the more dramatic moments of the film.
The story is meant to be a satire of Homer’s Odyssey, and we see a series of direct allusions to that story throughout, as well as the main subtle parallels throughout. However, I felt the film was really lacking direction and consistency throughout. Despite playing on the classic tale, I found myself frustrated by the film’s unwillingness to stop and take a step back.
From the beginning, despite its artistic benefits, the atmosphere of this film has a heavy impact on the storytelling, and because the film is in two minds between dark comedy and drama, it never really manages to give you a consistent experience. Normally, the Coens provide such original and engrossing black comedies, so I was very disappointed to see this film not reach those heights.
Overall, I liked O Brother, Where Art Thou, even if I wasn’t totally taken aback by it. Its directing style and cinematography are wonderful, and work well to establish the time period, but the film is often very inconsistent in its delivery of a dark satire, and that makes for a frustrating watch from time to time, so that’s why I’m giving this film a 7.3.
(One final note, if you’re not familiar with a strong Deep South accent, I recommend watching this with subtitles – it helps a lot.)