Following its release to theaters in 2000, it did not take long for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (directed by Joel Coen) to attain a critically acclaimed status. As of today, it is often referred to in terms of a “cult movie”. This implies that there is nothing accidental about the sheer popularity of the film in question and that it indeed does make much sense listing O Brother, Where Art Thou? among the greatest Hollywood movies produced in the new millennium. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length while outlining the factors that appear to have contributed rather substantially towards ensuring that Coen’s film will continue being considered emotionally appealing by viewers in years to come.
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Specifically, I will argue that the director succeeded in adjusting the film’s themes and motifs to correlate well with unconscious anxieties in people. I will also promote the idea that, despite the fictional nature of the film’s plot, there is a good rationale to deem O Brother, Where Art Thou? highly educational, as it reveals the innate workings of one’s “Southern”/WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) mentality and provides viewers with the opportunity to immerse in the emotional atmosphere of “good ole’ South” during the 20th century’s thirties. While on the task, I will refer to the 2007 article Homer in Tishomingo: Eclecticism and Cultural Transformation in the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” by John Cant as such that contains numerous insights into the movie’s discursive significance.
As it was implied in the introduction, there is a good reason to believe that O Brother, Where Art Thou? appeals to viewers on an unconscious level – the main precondition behind its lasting popularity. In this regard, one can hardly skip mentioning the fact that, discursively speaking, Coen’s film emulates the poem Odyssey by Homer. While referring to this particular quality of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Cant came up with an enlightening observation: “It is (Coen’s film)… punctuated with references to The Odyssey; most of these are so obvious as to require little comment apart from the fact that they are usually inverted in comic terms, or otherwise rendered ironically” (70).
The fact that the analyzed movie indeed draws on the Odyssey can be illustrated by a number of the film’s scenes that relate to the poem. Out of these, the one in which the characters of Everest, Pete, and Delmar are seen seduced and consequently taken advantage of by three women at the river, is probably the most notable, as it exploits the Homeric motif of evil Sirens. As a result, viewers cannot help but experience the Freudian sensation of “uncanny” while exposed to O Brother, Where Art Thou? – all due to the film’s strongly defined archetypal sounding.
After all, the motif of a few men being on the quest of trying to find a hidden treasure has been exploited in the works of literature since the time of antiquity – the best proof of this motif’s timeless essence. This is exactly the reason why, despite the film’s actual settings (reflective of the Great Depression period in American history), most viewers can relate to the subtle messages conveyed by its plotline. This simply could not be otherwise – the movie’s plot revolves around the eternal themes of love, friendship, betrayal, and loyalty. As a result, there is much eclectic wholesomeness to just about every scene in Coen’s film, in the sense that every little mise-en-scenic detail in O Brother, Where Art Thou? conveys a message of its own and that all these messages are inseparably interconnected. As Cant noted: “All in all it is (Coen’s film) a tale and each tale is the sum of all lesser tales and yet these are the selfsame tale and contain as well all else within them. So everything is necessary.
Every least thing” (68). Enough, while working on the discussed movie, the director proved himself fully aware of the psychological intricacies of how people tend to engage with a particular cinematographic piece. It is understood, of course, that this added even further towards guaranteeing the film’s commercial success.
Nevertheless, the fact that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is strongly eclectic would not result in causing quite as many people to grow utterly appreciative of it alone. There is something else about this movie that causes it to find more and more fans around the world, as time goes on. This “something” can be formulated as follows – O Brother, Where Art Thou? is deeply insightful, concerning what kind of forces have played a part in constructing the sense of personal self-identity in the descendants of White slave owners.
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In this regard, Cant aptly observed: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?... showing the ways in which both geography and history are impregnated with culture in the Deep South of Mississippi during the Depression” (63). After having watched the movie, one will be prompted to assume that the formation of this sense in White Southerners cannot be discussed outside of the following contributive factors, the combination of which is commonly believed to constitute “Southern mentality”:
- Strong religiosity. Just about every White character in Coen’s film (with the possible exception of Everett) is shown professing the unmistakably Protestant belief in the second coming of Jesus and the full appropriateness of seeing the latter as a “personal savior”. This, in turn, endows the film’s plot with prominent millennial/apocalyptic overtones.
- Greed for money. These characters are also shown thoroughly capable of combining their belief in God with their money-making pursuits. Many of these people appear to perceive one’s riches as the best proof that he or she is indeed favored by Jesus, regardless of the money’s actual source. The character of Big Dan illustrates the full validity of this suggestion.
- Racism. As implied by the film, there is a dark underside to the Southern folks’ adherence to “old-timey” values. After all, it is specifically these people’s commitment to preserving “authenticity” that appears to have driven many of them to join the Ku-Klux-Klan in the first place. In this respect, the Grand Wizard’s speech stands out quite explicatory: “We are gathered here to preserve our hallowed culture and heritage from intrusion, inclusion, and dilution of color, or creed, and of our old-time religion” (Cant 74). Partially, this explains why America’s South continues to be considered much more xenophobic than the rest of the country’s regions.
- Lack of intelligence. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? the characters of Pete and Delmar act as the perfect embodiments of a “slack-jawed yokel”– an unsophisticated rural dweller with very little capacity for abstract thought. Given the particulars of both characters’ physical appearance, there can be very little doubt as to the director’s intention to encourage viewers to stereotype White Southerners as having been affected by the practice of inbreeding to an extent.
What has been mentioned earlier helps to explain why many movie critics consider O Brother, Where Art Thou? strongly controversial, as well as why some people tend to think negatively of it. However, it would be wrong to deny any validity altogether to the film’s stereotypization of America’s South. After all, the very term “stereotype” is synonymous with the notion of a“long-term observation”.
As it was suggested in the introduction, the themes and motifs in O Brother, Where Art Thou? have a certain archetypal quality to them, and as such, they are suggestive of what used to account for the making of one’s identity as a White Southerner back through the Depression-era. I believe that the deployed line of argumentation, in this regard, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Once summarized succinctly, the essay’s foremost argumentative claim is as follows: O Brother, Where Art Thou? is both psychologically plausible and highly educational.
Because of it, this film does deserve to be recommended for watching by just about anyone interested in learning more about the discursive origins of America’s national identity, as a whole. In light of this conclusion, it will only be logical to assume that Coen’s movie will continue enjoying much popularity with viewers in the future. After all, is what it is, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is also highly entertaining.
Cant, John. “Homer in Tishomingo: Eclecticism and Cultural Transformation in the Coen Brothers’ ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’.” Comparative American Studies: An International Journal, vol. 5, no. 1, 2007, pp. 63-79.