Taking up the pieces from the infamous Columbine High school massacre and Shakespearean cathartic drama Othello, director Tim Blake Nelson weaves a tale of love, envy and betrayal - O. Set against the backdrop of an American high school, this saga of complex emotions and a tragic outcome follows the life of Odin James (Mekhi Phifer). Popularly known as O, he is the match winner of the Palmetto Grove basketball team and the lone black student in the school.
The ill-fated beauty Desdemona in the Shakespearean story who is a victim to the vicious mind games of her husband becomes Desi (Julia Stiles) in this teen drama. As O basks in the glory of his incredible talent, his coach Duke Gouldin´s (Martin Sheen) fatherly treatment and Desi´s unconditional love, he acquires an unlikely foe in Hugo (Josh Hartnett) who happens to be his fellow team-mate and Duke´s son. Tired of looming in O´s shadow and unhappy with his father´s preference for O, Hugo makes his mind up to destroy him.
And what follows is a dark account of Hugo´s conniving ways and O´s fall into his "friend´s" scheme. Like Othello, the Iago of this story - Hugo finds a scapegoat in O´s other good pal Michael Casio (Andrew Keegan). He fills O´s mind with suspicion and creates an impression that Desi and Michael are having an affair on the sly.
Unsure of his worth and feeling scorned in love, O looks up to Hugo as his only aide and follows his "advice" blindly. The fluctuating behaviour and insecurity of O is captured perfectly by the director. The young lad who excels in every department feels inferior and insecure to his strikingly beautiful and fair girlfriend. And this insecurity paves the path for his destruction.
Phifer is convincing as the emotionally drained O trying to gather pieces of his broken trust and spirit. The locker room scene where Hugo plants the earliest seeds of distrust followed by O´s raging reaction, his emotional outburst in the basketball court and him trying to find solace in drugs and booze and slowly heading towards the path of self destruction are some the highlights of the movie. Phifer has perfectly induced the pathos of assumed rejection and trauma that follows thereafter.
However, it is Hartnett as the devious Hugo who steals away the thunder. Right from being just an ordinary guy in the team, being snubbed by his father to his emergence as a master manipulator, Hartnett delivers in every moment. The mood, the expressions and the actions are subtle yet effective.
The background score rightfully mixes opera and rap notes providing the perfect ambience to this emotionally stirring account. The cinematography is brilliant especially in capturing O´s predicament, Hugo´s unfazed cold look and the tumultuous set up. The winding steps and the ideas brewing in O´s mind made a stark comparison. The film hits its highest note in the climax when O realises that he has reached a dead end. And that he is nothing but a mere pawn in the hands of destiny and Hugo. Left in a pool of remorse and deceit, O aches for final redemption.
Some broken dreams, lifeless bodies and aimless ambitions are all that this bloody game by Hugo has led to. But he has no remorse. For once Hugo is happy and satisfied. For once he is the centre of attention. For once the spotlight is on him. And that´s Hugo´s final redemption.