Joyously unhinged and very inventive, O Brother Where Art Thou? is the latest film from the imaginative minds of the Coen brothers. Based very roughly (and loosely) on Homer’s “Odyssey”, it’s a Depression-era musical about three convicts who escape from a chain gang to unearth a buried treasure, get one of the men home to be reunited with his wife, become overnight musical sensations as “The Soggy Bottom Boys”, and at the same time, elude a bloodthirsty team of Mississippi lawmen. For those of you who don’t …uite remember Homer’s tale, it doesn’t really matter too much here. However, for those interested in a quick history lesson, Homer composed “The Odyssey” around 700 B.C. as the epic poem takes place over a decade and focuses on Odysseus (aka Ulysses) and his journey home to his wife Penelope after fighting in the Trojan War.
The main character is a loquacious, debonair fellow named Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) who is part of a Mississippi chain gang during the Depression. When he’s not slicking back his locks with Dapper Dan hair pomade, admiring the pencil-line precision of his Smilin’ Jack mustache, or squeezing nine-dollar words out of his 50-cent brain, he continually thinks he has it all figured out. Ulysses uses the lure of a bogus hidden treasure to con two of his simple-minded chain-gang buddies into escaping with him. He takes charge of this gang because, as he tells his cohorts, he “has the capacity for abstract thought”. Our other tragic heroes in this tale are Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), who make a getaway that seems far easier than the one Ulysses himself made from the ashes of Troy. Out on the lam, they encounter a series of obstacles and lucky breaks, bizarre characters and aberrations of nature.
Off the trio goes looking for the treasure and to reunite Ulysses with his wife, Penny (Holly Hunter). As they wander the Deep South, they encounter “The Cyclops” in the form of Big Dan Teague (John Goodman), a gregarious one-eyed Bible salesman played with grumbling menace; the Sirens emerge as mysterious beauties who wash their clothes by a river and seduce the boys with sex and moonshine; and Cassandra, the blind seer, is reborn as an old black man who travels endlessly down a railroad track and forecasts salvation and surprise for the harebrained fugitives. There’s the mysterious, malevolent lawman (Daniel Von Bargen), who is almost supernaturally attuned to their “abstract” thinking; a hot-headed gangster named George Nelson (Michael Badalucco) who, when he’s not shooting cows with his tommy gun, is prone to depression – especially when someone makes the mistake of calling him “Babyface”; the KKK; a young blues musician named Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who has sold his sold to the devil in order to play well; a blind radio station owner who has a hankerin’ for that old timey sound (Stephen Root); and the state governor Pappy O’ Daniel (Charles Durning), who is fighting to retain his incumbency against a reformer named Vernon T. Waldrip (Ray McKinnon) who favors the little man – so much so that he has a “vertically challenged” man up on stage with him at all times.
Easier explained, the movie has but one joke, though it’s a funny one and it’s delivered in a number of tones and circumstances: our heroes are absolute morons but such good-hearted ones that things keep turning out okay for them. Classic myth and movies, intermingled and set to great folk music and untrammeled by any sense of predictability, urgency, realism or believability. However, the film maintains a hypnotic, graceful, and very seductive quality to it. It’s always fun and never the same movie twice.
The only fault seems to lie in the fact that the Coen’s go to great lengths to set up parallels between the film and the poem, but never really know how far to run with the similarities. In the end however, they create a frantic canvas that is accentuated by brilliant photography from Roger Deakins, who creates a rural Mississippi landscape using bleached-out images and soft yellowish-brown tones. It’s also buoyed by a wonderful soundtrack of bluegrass and blues, including both vintage recordings and reproductions of period music with musicians like John Hartford, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch.
O Brother Where Art Thou? was one of my favorite movies of the past year. However, it seems to have the rare quality pf polarizing audiences – you’ll either love it or hate it – there won’t be much middle ground. However, if you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest you check it out – just to see what camp you fall in.
Touchstone gives us O Brother Where Art Thou? in multiple listening options. We get a Dolby Digital 5.1 option, as well as a DTS 5.1 option along with English and Spanish subtitles. Again, DTS comes across a bit more rich and full and adds a bit more punch overall. Both tracks are excellent choices, but if you’ve got the goods to decode the DTS signal, it’s well worth it.
The film is pretty much a dialogue-driven affair, but much like another film I reviewed for the Shrine, Cast Away, this film excels in ambient-type effects as the front soundstage comes alive with gunfire, small explosions, crackles and pops from a campfire, birds, running (and rushing) water, singing congregations in the woods, and all other sorts of great “little things” that really draw you into a film. The rear surrounds are also brought into play with some very subtle uses – they are not always blaringly noticeable, but they always seem do be doing something subtle. LFE usage is minimal and never overpowering, but does rear its head in a few places to accentuate some of the score, as well as some of the more active effects. Dialogue was always easily understood and remarkably crisp throughout.
Another great aspect of the audio track for O Brother Where Art Thou? is the soundtrack – which became one of the hottest selling movie soundtracks of all time after its release. All of the songs on the track sound especially warm and rich as the newly recorded tracks sound grand and many of the older tracks sound much better, as there has been some obvious restoration done. All of the music fits perfectly with the theme of the film, as “Man of Constant Sorrow” will have you constantly reaching for your remote, rewinding the film, tapping your foot, and singing along in your best hayseed voice.
Touchstone does an excellent job with the audio transfer on O Brother Where Art Thou?. We get a very active, albeit subtle track that kicks it during the entire running of the film. It’s not hard to make a track loud, but it’s very hard to make a track enveloping and engrossing and that’s exactly what we get here. Kudos Toushstone for a job well done.
O Brother Where Art Thou? was a pleasure to see in the theater and the translation to DVD is an absolute joy as well. This anamorphic widescreen presentation in the films theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 looks as good as I have seen in some time. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is as gorgeous in this DVD presentation as it was in the theater and Touchstone has done one of their best jobs to date on the video transfer for O Brother Where Art Thou?.
What can I say about the transfer? It’s a couple of flaws away from perfect and one of the most stunning transfers I have seen in quite some time. The gorgeous yellow and brown hues of the dusty Mississippi Delta look terribly hot and parched, while the deep blue hues from the nighttime sky make you long to sleep under the stars. Everything is perfectly saturated, as colors are bright and vibrant in places and crisp and washed-out when called upon. The sharpness and detail found in the print were absolutely amazing and only added to the viewing pleasure that is O Brother Where Art Thou?. Black levels were very dark and solid while fleshtones were natural and accurate throughout.
Major flaws simply don’t exist here. I noticed one or two flakes total on the print, as well as a couple of instances of slight edge-enhancement. That’s it. Touchstone has put together a reference quality transfer all the way around as O Brother Where Art Thou? looks stunning from beginning to end. Simply a joy to behold.
We get some pretty paltry extras here from Touchstone on O Brother Where Art Thou? which is really disappointing since I was really looking forward to a commentary from the Coen’s and maybe some of the principals. However, we get more or less get the standard, unimaginative packaging that we’ve come to expect from films of much less caliber than this one.
In true Disney / Touchstone fashion, we get forced trailers at the beginning of the film which can be skipped by hitting the –MENU- button on your remote. The two trailers, which can also be selected under Sneak Peeks along with the preview for Bounce, are for The Crew and Unbreakable. The trailers really pissed me off because the one for Unbreakable gives away the movie! I have held off from seeing the film and was awaiting it’s arrival on DVD in order to watch it – I have avoided all spoilers and hints of spoilers and this trailer gives it away 15-seconds in. (CRAP! CRAP! CRAP! Damn you Touchstone!) Anyway, if you don’t want the film spoiled for you, make sure you hit –MENU- before the trailer for Unbreakable hits.
Starting things off on the DVD are the Theatrical Trailer, as well as the Music Video for “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” (which I absolutely love!). Two really quick extras that start things off before we move into the “meatier” features. However, the music video will probably be the most worn portion of the DVD extras, as it is really the only thing worth checking out more than once. My wife, who loved the film as well, is already tired of this song, which has been blasting though our home all weekend long.
Next up is Painting With Pixels, a quick featurette that tells us how the Coen brothers, along with director of photography Roger Deakins, took the principal photography and digitally re-mastered the film in order to get a golden, dusty, and very dry look-and-feel for the film. They replaced some traditional, very archaic lab processes with … get this … computers! We are taken very quickly through the process as we see some very cool footage on how the film was transferred to a digital master, manipulated, and the transferred back to film. We see some great “before and after” footage, as the computer and coloring wizards were able to set the tone for the film that the Coen’s were looking for.
Production Featurette is nothing more than the standard promotional feature that you’ve seen a million times over. We get interviews with the Coen’s, as well as the stars from the film, as they spend the majority of their time talking about the Coen’s rather than O Brother Where Art Thou?. This didn’t really bother me that much since I’m a huge fan of the Coen’s, but this featurette was rather empty by the time it was all said and done. A good feature to check out once, but very doubtful you’ll ever go back to it.
Storyboard to Scene Comparison is an extra that allows you to make use of your –ANGLE- button as you can click between the storyboard, the actual film, and both playing on the screen at the same time with the storyboard playing on top the film playing on the bottom half of the screen.
As I stated earlier, I was very disappointed with the extras here and am just waiting for the “Ultimate Edition” announcement – around the same time they do the same for Traffic. Nothing great, nothing exciting, and nothing worth writing home about. A very inadequate effort from Touchstone for such a fine film.
The Coen’s once again create a huge visual feast that’s hard to digest after only one sitting. Joel, who wrote and directed the film, and Ethan, who co-wrote and produced it, seem incapable of doing anything simple. For better or worse, they layer their films with references and allusions, crowd them with visual gags and musical cues, animate them with cartoonish performances, and invest each frame with so much stimuli that is simply must be viewed multiple times in order to fully absorb it.
O Brother Where Art Thou? is one of those films where the journey is the destination. Going along on this ride with these three stooges is the fun; when you get to the end, you’re not really anywhere and you wonder why you’re there instead of somewhere else. But heck, you’ve has so much fun drifting along the ebbs and flows and backwashes of the film that the time investment was well worth it.
While Touchstone has put together a great package where it really counts (audio and video), I’m still a bit upset that no more extras exist for this DVD. However, the film is a visual and aural feast, and Touchstone has done absolutely no wrong in those areas. The price of admission is well worth it and I suggest that if you haven’t already done so, you pick up a copy of O Brother Where Art Thou? and enjoy the ride.
Special Features List
- Sneak Peeks
- Theatrical Trailer
- Music Video – “Man of Constant Sorrow”
- Painting With Pixels
- Stroyboard to Scene Comparison