By: Kevin Jordan
The second best Odyssey ever.
My editor tasked us with reviewing the Coen Brothers’ films and, since I’d rather read Twilight novels than sit through almost their entire filmography, I volunteered to re-watch O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the one film of theirs worth watching more than once. Yeah, I said it. I also think Quentin Tarantino films are juvenile, gratuitous, self-congratulating tripe. So, enjoy the one time I don’t shit all over any of those men’s films.
(Note: I am writing this review while watching the film, so it’s going to have a bit of a different flow to it than usual. You’re welcome.)
I will say one thing about Coen Brother movies – they sure love sepia tones and it works extremely well in this film. Also, I just noticed all of the little pictures in the corners of the credit boxes in the film’s opening, foreshadowing upcoming scenes. Nice.
If you are not familiar with Homer’s The Odyssey, this is a great way to get a glimpse of it. The reason this movies stands out for me above all other Coen movies is probably because the story and its structure were written for the Coens two millennia ago and they simply had to modernize it. Just the way the main plot is revealed throughout the first sixteen minutes is better than anything else they’ve written.
The introduction of Tommy (the guitar player who sold his soul to the devil, played by Chris Thomas King) pays a little tribute to North by Northwest, one of my personal favorite classics. It also includes one of my favorite lines in the film, when Everett (George Clooney) gleefully notes that he is the only neutral religious man in the car, with Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) having just been baptized. Of course, the scene takes on renewed weight in the year 2020 with Tommy describing the devil as a white man – “as white as you folks with empty eyes and a deep hollow voice.” I don’t know who your brain immediately conjured, but mine went straight to Mitch McConnell. *shudder*
Baby Face Nelson, the Great Depression, the Ku Klux Klan (later), a hit song that makes them wealthy (later) – this movie is Forrest Gump does the depression.
The siren scene is a masterpiece. The haunting music, the strikingly beautiful women, the callback to the river being their salvation and now their downfall, the soothing sound of the river blending with the lyrics of the siren’s song to lull the men to sleep, and, oohhh, the different facial expressions of the three men. Pete’s raw, animal lust, Everett’ bewilderment, and Delmar looking like a virgin on prom night who has already orgasmed at the mere sight of a scantily clad, wet woman.
Poor Pete the toad.
Yes, the two men on Pappy’s (Charles Dunning) porch were debating the proper word to describe how they were getting their asses handed to them in the campaign for governor. This is probably the conversation in many 2020 Republican campaign headquarters, except they are not even remotely as self-aware.
Watching several dozen Klan members perform a dance looks uncomfortably close to what marching bands do at half time during college football games. Sorry band people, the Klan really does ruin everything.
Speaking of dancing, John Turturro’s dance while they sing “In the Jailhouse Now” is the best. Shoulder shrugs and his hands doing…whatever the hell that is. And to follow up with yodeling? Priceless. It is also worth noting that the way Clooney dances during “Man of Constant Sorrow” is how I look when I dance.
And the water returns to save them once more. Even the callbacks have callbacks. And there goes the oracle on his handcart. A small tear may have just rolled down my cheek.
I have seen this film several times, but I enjoy it just as much every time. If there is one thing that stood out this time it is that Tim Blake Nelson is sneaky great as Delmar. All three lead characters are sympathetic in different ways, but Delmar is the only one of the three who isn’t also kind of wank. His main role is comedic relief, but he is such a lovable character. No better is this evident than his sincere belief that being dunked in a river absolves him of his sins, including lying about his original crime.
I am glad I decided to watch this film again and, at some point, need to go back and reread The Odyssey. What I remember of it was the stories were interesting, but not that fun to read. Learning about The Odyssey and the morals Homer thought were important are clearly more fun in film format. But, neither of these is the best telling of The Odyssey. For that, check out The Natural. Yeah, I said it.
Rating: Ask for a dollar back. I told you O Brother was only the second best Odyssey.
By: Kevin Jordan
Let it go; it’s a movie.
I was raised catholic, spent the first four years of my education attending catholic school, and attended Sunday school through my junior high years. What that means is, during all that time, I learned next to nothing about the Old Testament of the Bible. Oh sure, they told us about Moses, floating down the river, the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, leading the Israelites out of Egypt (and they purposely used the term Israelites instead of Hebrews for political reasons), Passover, and the ten commandments. What they conveniently left out were the details that made the story more than just an anecdote to recite during the first reading at mass. This goes for other stories like Job, Jonah, David and Goliath, Sodom and Gomorrah, and dozens of other stories that weren’t even hinted at. Essentially, we got the Cliff’s Notes versions because the full versions make God out to be something of a vengeful, murderous dick. I completely understand the motivation behind not telling children (whom they are trying to indoctrinate), but if they didn’t want the stories to be known, they probably shouldn’t be pretending to teach the Old Testament in the first place.
(As you might have guessed, I’m not a practicing Catholic anymore, but not for reasons as petty as the church being bad story tellers. I’m not a practicing Catholic because I simply don’t get anything out of practicing the religion and there are far too many hypocrisies for me to ignore. But I digress.)
Before I get into the movie itself, there’s one more thing that needs to be made clear – this movie is a work of fiction. If you are going into this movie looking to find inconsistencies in the story as compared to what’s in the Bible, you should just stay home. Also, stop reading this review. Not only has the story of Moses and the Exodus been rewritten, modified, and edited dozens of times over the centuries (like everything else in the Bible and every other religious tome); the Exodus probably never happened in the first place. Archaeologists have spent more than a century looking for evidence of the event and have found nothing. Considering that the Bible says the Exodus was 600,000 people – not including women and children or their livestock (which puts the true number around two million) – you’d think there’d be something – bones, trash, a dreidel – left behind. Plus, the entire population of Egypt at the time was only 3 million+; the loss of more than half their population would have destroyed the empire overnight. My point is that you shouldn’t get worked up over a work of fiction about a (most probable) work of fiction (and there are already lots of people who are). Besides, if you’re going to be pissed about this movie, story inaccuracies aren’t going to be the thing that boils your blood.
The movie begins much like Gladiator – with a battle scene. Moses (Christian Bale) and his brother (well, Moses was adopted, so adopted brother), Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are generals in the Egyptian army and leading them into a battle with the Hittittes. Ramses is also the son of the Pharoah Seti (John Turturro), making Moses a prince of Egypt. Just before the battle, Seti’s seer gives a prophecy about the battle that one leader will be saved and that the savior will become a leader. Okay – so the prophecy is a little more than blunt foreshadowing, but whatever. They fight, they win, Moses saves Ramses’ life, and the religious people in the audience are already uncomfortable because Moses just killed a whole bunch of people.
Some time passes and Moses goes to the city of Pithum (which, over the course of the movie, somehow migrates closer to Memphis to the point where it’s a suburb) to investigate suspected thievery on the part of the governor. While there, Moses meets an elder named Nun (Ben Kingsley) who tells Moses about his true ancestry – that he’s actually a Hebrew saved by his sister when the Egyptians slaughtered all the first-born Hebrew children because of a prophecy (always a prophecy). The story gets to Ramses (who is now Pharoah) and Ramses confronts Moses about it. For me, this was the weakest part of the story because no evidence is provided, the story came from the corrupt governor, and Moses only admits to it to stop Ramses from cutting off his sister’s arm (whose true identity isn’t even known to Moses and Ramses). In addition, Bithia (a relative of the Pharoah), has a little Hebrew band that belonged to Moses that easily could have been the evidence and brought logic to the scene, but I guess threatening to mutilate people is good enough.
Anyway, Moses is exiled and the movie slogs through for a while. During this time, it sets up later parts of the movie, as well as what Moses ends up sacrificing for God, but it’s a pretty dull part of the film. When it gets interesting is when you see God for the first time – as an angry child. No doubt the religious folks in the audience experienced a collective jaw drop at this image. It’s also a very apt characterization of the Old Testament God and makes a lot of sense. Maybe God’s not just a vengeful dick, but a petulant child. It would explain how quick God is to smite people and whole towns.
The rest of the film is the rest of the Cliff’s Notes with some very good special effects. No, not the 3-D (again, completely useless), but the imagery itself. Obviously, the parting of the Red Sea is awesome, but the ten plagues are something to behold. Between the frogs, the flies, the maggots, the locusts, and the boils, you can feel your own skin crawling as if they are on you as well.
But aside from all that, the Passover is the thing that hits hardest in this film. Again, it’s a story that kind of gets glossed over in church. They really try not to emphasize that God killed thousands of children. In fact, Ramses will specifically confront Moses with that after it happens. He says “How can you worship a God who murders children?” and Moses responds with “No Hebrew child died.” Can you really blame Ramses for wanting to kill the Hebrews after that?
By the time the movie was over, the historian in me was very pleased, even though I know perfectly well the movie was fiction. For me, it was getting a chance to see a true interpretation of the Exodus, sans religious censorship. From a film standpoint, I’d say the movie was a little better than decent. For all of the epic-ness that director Ridley Scott was going for, he forgot to make the movie compelling. It just doesn’t emotionally draw the audience in the way a movie like Gladiator does. It’s almost clinical in its storytelling, an example being the plagues. Sure, they look fantastic, but they come and go a little too quickly, barely showing their effects. Also, Moses is always outside of the plight of the Hebrew slaves, so you never really feel sympathetic towards him. Had the movie spent more time on the characters themselves and the plight of the slaves, it would have been, well, more compelling and drawn the audience further into the story. But it sure beats Sunday school.
Rating: Ask for a couple of dollars back and some of that time you spent in mass.