Film: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Written and directed by The Coen Brothers
, three Depression-era Mississippi
prison fugitives go on a rollicking adventure in an attempt to reach the money buried by one of them in his back yard. They have only a short time to do this, though, as the backyard in question is in an area slated to be flooded by the damming activities of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The story is (very) loosely based
on Homer's The Odyssey
, following Ulysses
Everett McGill, Delmar O'Donnell and Pete as they meet, among others, a blind prophet
, sirens, the Cyclops and a gifted guitar player who "sold his soul to the devil
". Also during their journey, they record a hit song, rob a bank with George "Baby Face" Nelson, encounter the KKK, and inadvertently get mixed up in the state gubernatorial election. It was noted for the tremendous success of its soundtrack
, most of which was recorded by Alison Krauss & Union Station
(Dan Tyminski provided Everett's singing voice) and other country-bluegrass acts.
Bonus points if you recognize the title from the 1941 Preston Sturges
' film Sullivan's Travels
This film provides examples of:
- Agent Scully: Despite being pursued by Satan, meeting a prophet, being seduced by sirens, and being apparently saved from execution by divine intervention, Everett still insists that there is a reasonable explanation for everything. At least it's Lampshaded. And by the end, he doesn't really seem sure of himself any more after seeing the cow on the roof of a shed, which the prophet told them they would see back at the beginning.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Some of Homer Stokes' about the heroes near the end of the movie were, "These boys is not white! Hell, they ain't even old-timey."
- At the Crossroads: The three meet Tommy here after he sold his soul to the devil ("I wasn't usin' it for nothin'") to become a famous musician, this is based on the real life Tommy Johnson who was the originator of the story. Yes, he did it before Robert Johnson
- Berserk Button:
- Beware the Nice Ones: Sort of. Delmar is the only member of the group to turn and attack Big Dan head-on when Dan shows his True Colors. Unfortunately, he still gets his ass kicked.
- Bewitched Amphibians: Delmar is at one point convinced this has happened to Pete.
- Black and Gray Morality: Our "heroes" include a trio of escaped criminals and a bad-tempered, corrupt governor. The villains include the Grand Dragon of a KKK chapter and his lackeys, and an Inspector Javert who may actually be the Devil. The most sympathetic characters are probably Delmar (a sweetly cheerful idiot who nevertheless still goes along with Everett's schemes) and Tommy, who sold his soul to the Devil.
- Blatant Lies: "That ain't your daddy. Your daddy was hit by a train."
- Blind Seer: Lampshaded by Everett, who insists the man has a Disability Superpower.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Homer Stokes seems like a nice enough guy and possibly a better governor than Pappy O'Daniel. And then we see him leading a Ku Klux Klan rally...
- Book Ends:
- The film opens with a chain gang together working near a railroad track and singing. The film closes with Everett and Penny's daughters tied together by twine walking over a railroad track and singing.
- Also near the beginning they meet the blind prophet on the tracks, who sets up the story; at the end the blind prophet is seen passing by on the tracks.
- Break Away Pop Hit:
- The soundtrack had its own sequels.
- In-movie also, since the Soggy Bottom Boys' singing is so good it helps resolve the plot.
- Brick Joke: After mocking Delmar and Pete for being baptized early in the movie, skeptic Everett admits his failings and begs for mercy in a Not So Final Confession at the gallows. He is then forcibly immersed by the floodwaters, and everyone is saved. Literally.
- The Cast Showoff: Real-life blues singer Chris Thomas King plays Tommy, and at one point gets to sing (in his own voice) a rendition of Skip James' "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues." Also, that's really Tim Blake Nelson singing the lead vocal on "In The Jailhouse Now".
- Censorship by Spelling: "Mrs. Hogwallop up and R-U-N-N-O-F-T." Becomes somewhat of a Running Gag.
- Chained Heat
- Chekhov's Gun: Everett's pomade, particularly its distinctive smell, which lets the Sheriff track them down.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Delmar "We Thought You Was a Toad" O'Donnell.
- Color Wash: They messed with the hue and saturation until everything was an intensely colorful brown, imitating the look of sepia-toned photos. Without this, the Mississippi (and South Carolina, for some scenes) summer landscape would have been a brilliant green, which the creators said was too bright for the Depression era Dust Bowl-type feel they were going for.
- Comically Missing the Point: When Everett admits he made the treasure up to convince his chainmates—i.e., Pete and Delmar—to help him escape, Pete realizes that fifty years will be added to each of their sentences for fleeing the chain gang, and that he won't get out of prison until he's 84 years old. Delmar happily chimes in, "Well, I'll only be 82!"
- Comic Trio: Everett is The Leader, Delmar is The Fool, and Pete is the Only Sane Man (compared to the other two, at least).
- Contrived Coincidence: Of course the guy the KKK decides to lynch is the one our heroes know and are on friendly terms with.
- Corrupt Hick: The insanely corrupt Big Dan Teague. Who is channeling the cyclops Polyphemus.
- Cult Soundtrack: The soundtrack album is regarded as one of the most important Country and Bluegrass albums of the decade and sold over 7 million copies. It also won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002, making it one of only three soundtracks to ever win that award.
- Dawn of an Era: Everett's view of the building of hydroelectric dam, that saves his and his friend's lives:
: No, the fact is, they're flooding this valley so they can hydroelectric up the whole durn state
. Yes, sir, the South is gonna change. Everything's gonna be put on electricity and run on a paying basis. Out with the old spiritual mumbo jumbo, the superstitions, and the backward ways. We're gonna see a brave new world where they run everybody a wire and hook us all up to a grid. Yes, sir, a veritable age of reason. Like the one they had in France
. Not a moment too soon.
- Deal with the Devil: Tommy Johnson traded his soul to the devil at the crossroads for his guitar skills.
- Deep South
- Deliberately Monochrome: Of the sepia variety, see Real Is Brown below.
- Deus ex Machina: The flooding happens at exactly the right time to save them all from being hanged. Possibly a literal example.
- Did Not Die That Way: inverted, McGill finds out his wife has told his daughters that he got hit by a train, rather than tell them he was sent to jail.
- Disney Death: Pete was believed to have transformed into a Toad by the launderer sirens, so they take him in a box. The toad was then killed by Big Dan Teague by being crushed, and his friends were physically incapable of stopping his death because they were beaten to bloody pulps. It was later revealed that the toad was actually not Pete, nor was he even transformed by a toad: Turns out those "launderer sirens" actually delivered him to Sheriff Cooley's men for the reward, and is now a prisoner back at the farm.
- The Ditz: Delmar.
- Empty Piles of Clothing: This (and a toad) cause the other two to assume Pete's been turned into a toad.
- Enthralling Siren: The three washerwomen are the siren stand-ins.
- Everything's Better with Cows: One is gunned down during a stampede ("Cows! I hate cows worse than coppers!"), another is involved in the Brick Joke.
- Eyepatch of Power: Big Dan Teague.
- Fan Disservice: The Sirens, in addition to being generally beautiful, all wear wet dresses so you can see their lingerie. Yet, combined with the creepy song they keep singing, and the fact that one of them is forcing a drug down Everett's throat, you can't help but feel there's something off about the whole thing.
- Fake Band: The Soggy Bottom Boys.
- Fat, Sweaty Southerner in a White Suit: Several. Most notably, Governor Pappy O'Daniel (for the mildly corrupt version) and Big Dan Teague (for the insanely corrupt version).
- First Father Wins
- Friend to All Living Things: Delmar, or butterflies at the least.
- Funny Background Event:
- Everett, Delmar, and Pete are all chained together, and try to escape by boarding a moving train. In the foreground we see Everett (on the train) introducing himself to some hobos. In the background, Pete trips before he can climb in...
- Also, Pete's gloriously goofy dancing during Delmar's rendition of "In the Jailhouse Now."
- Background singing - in Man of Constant Sorrow, Everett finishes singing a depressing stanza that ends in the line "perhaps I'll die upon this train..." and Delmar and Pete chime in with a cheery "Perhaps he'll die upon this train!"
- Genre-Busting: It's a musical/comedy/social commentary/retelling of The Odyssey... that's set in The Great Depression.
- Good Old Fisticuffs: Vernon gives Ulysses a good old-timey ass-whoopin' in the Woolworths. Vernon apparently has some training in the pugilistic arts, whereas Ulysses... not so much.
- Go Out with a Smile: George Nelson. We don't see him killed but his last scene is him having been caught by a mob and being led to his execution. He's more then happy with it, however; the mob was even nice enough to give him some violinists as a funeral march.
- Historical In-Joke
- Hypocritical Humor: Just before he's executed, Everett prays to God to let him see his daughters at least one more time. When the dam breaks and saves him, he starts going on about reason. The other two immediately call him out on it.
- Implacable Man: the Sheriff.
- Inspector Javert: The Sheriff characterizes himself this way at the very end, claiming that the boys have only been pardoned by the law of man.
- Ironic Nursery Tune: The siren-seduction scene, to "Didn't Leave Nobody But The Baby" Also a rare case of erotic horror.
- Jerkass: Pappy O'Daniel, oh so much.
- Kick the Dog: Big Dan beats up Everett and Delmar, steals their money, and crushes their frog whom Delmar thinks is Pete in front of them.
- The Klan: Appears as enemies midway through the movie, as Everett, Pete, and Delmar must rescue their friend Tommy from the Klan.
- The Lancer: Pete.
- Large and In Charge: Governor Pappy O'Daniel. "We're mass communicatin'!"
- Large Ham: Homer Stokes. It's particularly noticeable in the scene where he leads a KKK rally. Of course, it makes sense, given that he's running for governor and a talent for public oratory would help him a lot.
- George "Babyface" Nelson.
- Louis Cypher: The Sheriff who is chasing after them. His Scary Shiny Glasses reflect fire a lot.
- Lyrical Dissonance: The Soggy Bottom Boys' extremely cheerful, upbeat rendition of "Man of Constant Sorrow".
- Magic Realism: There are more than a few downright mystical occurrences in the film, such as the prophet, the sirens, and the strong implication that the Warden is Satan.
- Meaningful Name: In a story based off The Odyssey, the main character's name is Ulysses.
- Likewise the Governor, whose name is Menalaus, although that's a little more The Iliad.
- Musical World Hypotheses: Diegetic all the way through, making its classification as a musical to begin with dubious to some.
- Mythical Motifs: While the film doesn't follow The Odyssey to the letter, it does borrow some notable plot elements from it, such as the Cyclops, the sirens, and one of the main characters trying to get home to his wife so she won't marry someone else.
- The connections to the Odyssey can get pretty clever the more you look for them. If you're already a fan of the movie and understand the more obvious references, a little research (or a re-read of the Odyssey) can add to what is already a fairly brilliant semi-adaptation.
- Mythology Gag: Big Dan the cyclops looks like he's going to lose his eye to a flung Confederate flag spear, much like Polyphemus, but he manages to catch it between his hands at the last moment. Then the gang cuts down the fiery cross, which falls on top of him, almost certainly burning his eye out and preserving a piece of the narrative.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: There really was a Depression-era Governor named Pappy O'Daniel, but his given name was Wilbert Lee O'Daniel; in the film the governor's real first name is Menelaus (another Homer reference). Also the real O'Daniel was governor of Texas, not Mississippi.
- Not His Sled: The expected fate of John Goodman's "cyclops" is deliberately referenced then avoided. Then happens slightly differently anyway.
- Oh, Crap:
- John Goodman's reaction when he realizes that the fiery cross was coming down directly at him.
- Also, Homer Stokes' reaction when he realizes that the town, after his attempt at getting the Soggy Bottom Boys arrested failed, is now going to run him out of town on a rail as revenge for interrupting the performance.
- Paper-Thin Disguise: Toward the end of the movie, the fugitive "Soggy Bottom Boys" perform ("Neighborhood of B") while disguised with false beards. Lampshaded later, when their performance wins over the crowd and Everett deliberately yanks his beard off for a moment.
- The Pardon: Granted but ignored.
- Politically Correct History: Zig-zagged. The white heroes refer to Tommy as a "boy," but otherwise treat him as an equal. The radio station manager insists that he won't play "colored songs," but once the "Soggy Bottom Boys" become popular, Pappy O'Daniel doesn't seem to care that "they's integrated." The KKK is shown in all its silly racist glory, but also portrayed as a fringe organization that is not looked upon favorably by the common townsfolk.
- Politically Incorrect Villain Homer Stokes, candidate for governor by day, Klansman by night.
- Popculture Osmosis: The Coens have claimed that they've never actually read The Odyssey, but know the story through its various adaptations.
- Produce Pelting: What the audience does when Homer Stokes ends up interrupting the Soggy Bottom Boys performance to get them arrested, that as well as ride him out of town on a rail.
- Real Is Brown: Pursued with a vengeance, given that a substantial portion of the film's post-production budget went into extensive color-correction. The Coens wanted every frame of the film to reflect the dingy, withered dustbowl look, and in some cases took entire fields of green flora and turned them yellow.
- Reduced to Ratburgers: Pete and Delmar find a "whole gopher village" and proceed to cook some up. Everett doesn't seem very enticed by the notion of eating rodent.
- Retirony: Of a sort. Pete was two weeks from being released from prison anyway. Now that he's escaped, he won't get out until 1987.
- Rock Me, Asmodeus!: "And I have it from the highest 'thority, that that negra...sold his soul to the Devil!!!" (the townsfolk don't buy into it, though)
- Running Gag: Briefly.
"Damn, we're in a tight spot!"
- Everett's obsession with his Dapper Dan pomade also counts.
- Satan: Sheriff Cooley is explicitly theorized to be this.
- Scary Shiny Glasses: The Sheriff/Warden/ Devil wears these.
- Seinfeldian Conversation: This charming example:
"He's gonna paddle our little behind."
"Ain't gonna paddle it - gonna kick it. Real hard."
"No, I believe he's gonna paddle it."
"I don't believe that's a proper description."
"Well, that's how I'd characterize it."
"I believe it's more of a kickin' sitchiation."
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Everett. For example, from the Funny Background Event described above:
Say, any of you fellas happen to be smithies? If not smithies per se
, perhaps you trained in the metallurgical arts
before straitened circumstances led you to a life of aimless wandering
And thank you for that conversational hiatus. I generally refrain from speech while engaged in gustation. There are those who attempt both at the same time; I find it coarse and vulgar.
- Shout-Out: Tommy's Deal with the Devil is a reference to a similar deal supposedly made by real-life bluesman Tommy Johnson
- The title of the movie is itself a Shout-Out, to Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels.
- The entire plot contains various shout outs to the Greek poem The Odyssey by Homer. The main protagonist is named Ulysses in both stories, has to get home to prevent his wife from marrying someone else and they meet singing women who seduce them (the Sirens) and a one-eyed giant man (the cyclops). The reform candidate is named Homer Stokes, referencing the author Homer. The blind railroad man predicting events references Tiresias, while the blind radio station manager references Homer again, who was also said to be blind.
- The KKK scene is based off of the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Scarecrow, Lion and Tin man try to sneak into the witches castle. The guards are chanting the way the KKK does and even doing a similar dance, and the three heroes steal disguises from the guards/KKK.
- The Soggy Bottom Boys are a reference to the Light Crust Doughboys, who were featured on the real-life Pappy O'Daniel's radio show.
- There's a coffin floating on a flooded river at the end, which is most certainly a shout out to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
- A man named Ulysses meets a blues singer at a crossroads. Coincidence?
- Sheriff Cooley dresses and looks very similar to the villain in the Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke.
- Sophisticated as Hell: Many of the characters in a patchily-educated way, but mostly Everett. "I'm the goddamn paterfamilias!"
- Source Music: All the music in the film is diegetic.
- Stout Strength: Big Dan Teague.
- Stern Chase: The Warden's search for the three convicts.
- The Stool Pigeon: Pete ends up becoming a Lacerated Larry after the "Sireens" basically turned him over to the sheriff's men for a bounty (which initially led them to believe that Pete was actually turned into a frog due to it being in his clothes).
- Surrounded by Idiots - Pappy O'Daniel's cronies and son are sycophantic yes-men who are a bit slow on the uptake, and Pappy is painfully aware of this. This is most likely the reason he tries to convince Vernon T. Waldrip to leave Stokes' campaign and join his.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: "Who is that man?" "Not my husband." Also doubles as a Shout-Out to the source material.
- The Vamp: The three sirens
- Those Two Guys: Pappy's two advisors, see the Seinfeldian Conversation above.
- True Companions: Everett, Pete, Delmar, and Tommy.
- T-Word Euphemism: Sort of. One character wants to prevent his son from knowing that his mother left the family, so he just says she "Up and R-U-N-N-O-F-T."
- Subverted later on, in that the kid knew exactly what he was talking about, anyway.
- Unusually Uninteresting Sight: The bank customers at the robbery seem to be rather non-plussed by all the shooting.
- Upper-Class Twit: Pappy O'Daniel's son.
- Villainous Glutton: Big Dan Teague, as befits his correspondence with the cyclops Polyphemus.
- Villainous Breakdown: "Babyface" Nelson and Homer Stokes.
- Nelson gets better...sort of.
- "MY NAME IS GEORGE NELSON, AND I'M FEELIN' TEN FEET TALL!"
- Villain with Good Publicity: Homer Stokes, oh so much
- Whole Plot Reference: Loosely, to The Odyssey.
- Working on the Chain Gang: The story begins with Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar escaping from this while chained to each other. Pete, at one point, is recaptured and put back to work on the chain gang and has to be broken out of prison again.