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Three thieves in 1930’s Depression-hit Mississippi escape from jail in order to retrieve buried loot.
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With its rich soundtrack of old-time country and classic bluegrass tunes, this movie has so many layers to it and responsible for so much that it takes around ten viewings to fully understand it. After nearly a dozen views, this reviewer is still trying to figure out all the particular levels and it might take another dozen to fully figure it out. Either way, it sure is an enjoyable way to answer many questions.
Partially based on Homer’s “Odyssey”, which was recently purchased in order to completely understand this story but remains unread courtesy of a certain Bill Bryson’s travel books, this movie was responsible in this reviewers’ opinion for showcasing that George Clooney can actually act. His role as Everett is as the leader of a ramshackle group of individuals, and whilst accompanied by the dim-witted Pete (Turturro) and former-farmer Delmar (Blake Nelson) they really are quite the oddest bunch of bastards I’ve ever seen. Having broken out of the slammer by hammering the heck out of the chain they were once joined to whilst working by the side of a dusty road breaking rocks, they embark on a cross country adventure encountering a colourful set of characters along the way; escaped bank robber Baby Face Nelson, conman Big Dan Teague and even the Ku Klux Klan. Unbeknown to Pete and Delmar, they have been lied to and the only reason for their escape was to prevent Everett’s wife Penny (Hunter) from remarrying a successful guy who is also handy when putting up his fists.
It could be seen on one level that this is a typical Hollywood tactic of will our heroes succeed in their mission which has been peddled to us cinema goers since pretty much the birth of cinema in that Parisian cinema way back in 1895. But, if you care to look at it a degree further, there are a significant amount of mythical factors which pay a huge amount to the movie’s success. Even the political climate of the time when people simply went bust and livelihoods were lost is more than handsomely mentioned. At the time of when this film is set, around 1933 but never explicitly suggested, America was literally at its knees due to the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and the recession it created as a result. Family farms were seized, suicides rife and families struggled to survive; a recession that was easily more traumatic and socially damaging than the one which the world finds itself encountering at the moment.
The political characters of the movie are Governor Pappy O’ Daniel (a larger than life Irishman who is surrounded by Yes Men) and Homer Stokes (a goofy looking fella with bucked teeth that lacks intelligence). Both realise that the way to the electorates’ heart is to convince them that they are a man of the people who is looking to help the farmer over the course of the recession but both couldn’t be more different from one and another. Pappy is by no means poor but has worked his way up the ladder due to hard work, with Homer a pauper who prides himself on belonging to the Ku Klux Klan and is very proud that he lynches African-Americans for shits and giggles; a man of the people he is not but a man of idiocy. The political struggle amongst the two is a stark reminder of how far politics in America has come since those dark days when lynching innocent people was the norm in the Deep South; the inauguration of President Obama is thankfully a sign of normality amongst the American people.
The most striking aspect of the movie is its look; it has the appealing factors of black and white cinema but is in fact colour like a monochrome picture. Having been digitally fed into a computer and coloured, it has the look of grittiness and reality as well as keeping in the tradition of cinematic fiction. The characters in the film, despite their Hollywood pearly white smile, still look like they could barely manage to raise a dime between them, and this effect is due to use of this digitally enhanced imagery. But I guess the reason why it is a classic, apart from demonstrating that Clooney can act and not just a pretty face, is its soundtrack.
Put together by T. Bone Burnett, whose other professional endeavours include the soundtrack to “Walk the Line”, it has a distinct 30’s sound due to it using tracks which were popular at the time. The Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “In the Highways”, Ralph Stanley’s “O Death” and even the great Jimmie Rodger’s “In the Jailhouse Now” is given airtime. The soundtrack is that rich and varied it proved unbelievably successful. A fan of country music for some time and a writer for the UK magazine “Maverick”, the impact this album had on country music proved invaluable. Many reverted back to this traditional, old-time sound with many bands, such as the John-Paul Jones-managed “Uncle Earl”, releasing music such as this that includes the odd wrongly played note which can be played without the aid of a mixing desk. Even to this day in the year 2009, bands are still trying to capture the sound laid down by country music founders way back on that sweltering 1927 day in Bristol Tennessee when Ralph Peer recorded both The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
Now nearly a decade after its release, the impact of “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?” is still being felt in the music world. Bands seeing this for the first time are still intrigued at the pure sound it has, with many wanting to copy or record their own interpretation of the movie’s soundtrack. It has helped bands come into contact with the country legends which they might have otherwise not heard of, and I suspect this influence will still keep on happening. I, as well as the millions around the world who appreciate the greatness of country music, certainly salutes The Coen Brothers for that. A classic which will certainly stand the test of time and be watched, as Tom Lehrer sang, when I am old and grey.This film won Best Director and Best Cinematography, and was nominated for five other categories. The screenwriter was nominated, and rightly so. Taken from a short story that first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933 by Maurice Walsh, Green Rushes, Frank Nugent was able to weave a story rich in subtext and conflict.
The collector’s edition of the DVD includes an interview with Maureen O’Hara where she reminisces about filming The Quiet Man, and is well worth watching.