O Brother, Where Art Thou, (2000) written and directed by the Coen Brothers, is, at its heart, a work of comparative mythology. The film overtly claims inspiration from Homer's Odyssey, opening with a title card with the epic poem's invocation of the muse. The plot and characters are all loosely drawn from the ancient Greek epic, but by setting the retelling in Mississippi during the Great Depression, the film places the mythology of the original text against the backdrop of a Christian mythos and Southern US folk traditions. The resultant braid is an exquisitely woven journey, primary a fiercely comical one, but at times just as spellbinding, powerful, and frightening.
The film stars George Clooney as the sly, fast talking, Ulysses Everett McGill, an escaped convict, first seen chained together with his less intelligent “crew,” Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), as they make their way across the state in pursuit of a treasure. Like their mythological antecedents, they encounter many trials and tribulations on their way.
The trio's prophet comes in the form of an old, blind black man pushing a handcar. He is their Cassandra and their Tiresias, and foretells adventure, misfortune, and ultimate triumph in an unexpected form, as well as giving the escapees a specific image of a cow perched on a cotton barn. Though he is drawn from the blind prophet present in Greek tradition, he takes on qualities of Christian legend, the unnamed traveler, the poor man's prophet, and his language is biblical in diction with mentions of trials of the heart and salvation. His race is drawn from a standing (and unfortunately still present) association of wise old men of color with the mystic in the American folk tradition, especially in Southern narratives.
The prophet is an archetypical figure that serves as an obvious bridging point between three traditions, but the mastery of the film is in drawing on complimentary, rather than congruous elements. While hiding in the woods, the men come across a congregation dressed in white robes, heading to the nearby lake to be baptized. The choral musical number, 'Down to the River to Pray' was arranged by modern Country Folk singer Alison Krauss, who leads the rendition for the film. It is deeply religiously Christian, and is sung in gospel choirs.
The effect the performance and the scene has on the audience and on the characters in the film is hypnotic in it's beauty, and the trio find themselves at the water's edge. While crafty and rationalminded, Everett brushes off the idea of born-again salvation as desperation in hard times, Delmar, and after him Pete race down to the priest to be baptized. From a Christian standpoint, this is a positive scene, but in the narrative retelling of the Odyssey, this congregation stands in for the Lotus Eaters, a group of Islanders who takes in travelers and feeds them a drugged lotus leaf that makes them forget all their troubles, and thus their quest. By placing the Southern Evangelist rebirth scene in this light, the film forces a comparison of values, but also a rereading of both cultural "texts."
The movie later parallels this scene with three equally hypnotic singing women, also dressed in white who are referred to explicitly as the sirens. Mythological bird-women whose voice was meant to lure sailors to death, in the film they take on their post-Christian appearance: beautiful in body as much as in voice. After the encounter ends badly for one of the travelers, along with "siren" they are referred to as "the Whore of Babylon."
In the original Odyssey, Odysseus is pursued throughout his journey by the sea god Poseidon who he enrages through his actions. Poseidon himself does not have a strong moral connotation. The mythology is such that a hero can be the enemy of most any Olympian and in favor with another. With Ulysses Everett McGill and his crew being escaped convicts, his natural pursuant was a man of the law. Sheriff Cooley, thus, fills this role in the recasting of the epic. But the role of a law man in the story of a jail break has many different cultural implications. Daniel von Bargen's appearance and performance in the part were inspired by Boss Godfrey in Cool Hand Luke, but the fear and awe that surround him is an older cultural idea.
Here, the Christian and Southern Mythology combine to add an additional layer to his character. Early in the film, the trio stumble on Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) named and based on the real man who also legendarily sold his soul at a crossroads in rural Mississippi for his skill on the guitar. When asked what the devil looks like, Everett describes the traditional "red and scaly with a bifurcated tail, and he carries a hay fork," and Tommy corrects him, describing Sheriff Cooley perfectly saying "He's white, as white as you folks, with empty eyes and a big hollow voice. He loves to travel around with a mean old hound." Every time the sheriff appears, even at night, he is wearing mirror sunglasses, and most of the time, their reflection contains a fire. Thus he becomes three characters in one - the law man, Poseidon, and the Devil. This triplicated role also comes into play in the presentation of the underworld. Odysseus pays a visit to the Greek underworld, which, above all, is depicted by its inhabitants as dark and boring, but with the Hellish Christian overlay, it becomes fiery, with moments of torture, and haunting forewarnings.
The allusions run throughout the film, many of which are only half-serious nods to one mythology or another. When betrayed by a family member, Pete calls him "Judas Iscariot Hogswollop. The biblical flood is both referred to and, in a way enacted. Along with Tommy Johnson, the crew runs into George "Baby-Face" Nelson, and gets a front row seat to depression era political corruption. There are dozens of quick references to the Odyssey and to Homer, including a Cyclops, a blind bard, and the naming of Ulysses Everett's wife Penny, short of Penelope. But it's the moments when the different cultural origins of the film run together that makes this lighthearted tribute also a work of comparative mythic analysis.
When I decided to write about O Brother, Where Art Thou, I knew I would have to choose what about the movie I was going to dedicate a post to. In talking about the use of myth and culture in the film, I am leaving out discussion of a soundtrack that won incredible amounts of recognition and awards, used found tracks from archives, pulled several artists out of retirement, and awarded a Grammy to a man who had led a chain gang in a song in 1959. I am overlooking the then novel technique of digital color correction that was used to give the film a sepia tint, and what good and horrible things Hollywood has since done with the technique pioneered in this movie. Hopefully, in time, someone will have a chance to revisit this film. It is, after all, a modern epic.