In a world of throwaway entertainment designed to meet our desire for escapism without being memorable or challenging, the Coen brothers are our saviour. Yet again they have produced a thoroughly excellent film, completely different from what they have done before. O´ Brother Where Art Thou is very loosely based on Homer´s The Odyssey except set in the south of America during the depression at the turn of the century, and featuring two companions for Ulysees.
The hilarious trio who start out chained together and escape to seek treasure are Everett Ulysees McGill (George Clooney), Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro). While searching for buried treasure they have a variety of wild and unusual experiences encountering many of the same characters as Ulysees does in the Odyssey. The three have only a few days to get to the treasure before a dam is blown and the valley flooded to make way for a huge hydroelectric scheme. Symbolically the advent of electricity has a profound effect on the superstition and culture of the south and there is a deliberate sense in the film that what we are seeing is a culture soon to disappear.
Ulysees in the film is a silver tongued conman who assumes the lead in proceedings, he is backed up by the simple minded Delmar and the unusual Pete. They encounter sirens, a cyclops, the Klu Klux Clan, a guitar genius, "Babyface" Nelson and perhaps even the devil himself. The pervading sense of superstition which permeates the film helps to set the scene and allows more freedom in the way that the characters interpret events. For example Delmar becomes convinced that the sirens have turned Pete into a toad.
The supporting cast is excellent and includes John Goodman as Big Dan Teague, the one-eyed bible salesman and aforementioned cyclops. Holly Hunter plays Penny, the wife of Everett. Charles Durning pops up as the governor Pappy O´ Daniel, surrounded by halfwits.
The action is fast paced and hilarious throughout. From the first scene you find yourself completely sympathising with the trio of escaping cons, especially Everett himself as they stumble from one situation straight into another. Clooney really impressed me in this film, Everett has a believable conman persona and a strange obssession with his hair which involves lathering it up with Dapper Dan hair jelly and sleeping with it in a hairnet. The character is extremely likeable and you find yourself rooting for him from the start, after all he´s a "Dapper Dan Man".
Delmar is the half wit of the bunch but he is disaffectingly kind and open and he has a very warm and considerate way of speaking to people. Pete is strange, with an intensity of purpose and an often reckless approach, but in keeping with the group he is a decent human being. All of them act their parts fantastically well, with Coen brothers favourites Turturro and Goodman doing an especially good job.
One of the most important aspects of this film is the music, the soundtrack is fantastic and well worth buying on its own. The sound is a mixture of country, blues and old timey music, some of it thoughtful, some funny and some sweet. The gang themselves end up recording a song at one stage on their adventure and it is really brilliant, called "I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow". The music throughout helps to establish the setting and to evoke certain emotions during specific scenes, it is one of the most effective uses of music that I have ever seen in a film.
The direction is also excellent, from the first shot as we fade into colour to the last where we fade out again they do not put a foot wrong. The locations all look authentic and the barren feel of the times, the sensation of the depression and the struggle to survive all come through in the background without being the main story. There is also plenty of time for the Coen´s love of weird imagery to come through and it really adds to the film.
The writing is also fantastic, the Coen´s have made the film light hearted and almost whimsical. The action flows along and despite the threat of death and introduction of some frightening characters and situations it always manages to stay upbeat and comedic. At the same time the story does not suffer. It is a film that does not invite comparisons, unique and original in concept and execution. There are also some terrific laughs which go a long way towards lightening the production.
Overall this film is fantastic, a highly enjoyable and thoughtful production which is suitable for anyone aged 12 or over (according to the box). I would go with what Turturro says in his interview that there is nothing really in the film that a kid aged 10 couldn't see. It is funny, charming and deeply satisfying. If you like the Coen brothers you will have already seen this, otherwise I would urge you to do so there simply aren´t that many brilliant films made and this is definitely one of the few.