Joel and Ethan Coen acknowledge that while George Clooney has played a variety of roles in their films, they all share a single attribute: They are all morons. It’s therefore ironic that, in his debut for the estimable auteurs, he played a contemporary version of Homer’s “wily” Odysseus. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Clooney , like his ancient counterpart, encounters mythological creatures in a quest to return home and retrieve his wife from the clutches of nefarious suitors, but the similarities end there. Many of the obstacles result from the consequences of his own furtive inventiveness, not the capriciousness of the gods, and as consequences unfold, we understand that his fate will forever be unresolved.
For some critics, the tendency for personality to resist reason in the Coen’s oeuvre reeks of condescension at its best, and misanthropy at its worst. This problem seems magnified when one realizes that the brunt of their comedic jabs come at the expense of rural Americans, long represented in American popular culture as rubes and racists. Their broadly comic style underscores this sense of distance between a (presumably) enlightened audience and the boobs depicted on screen. O Brother presents an undeniably deep fried ironic re-reading of one of the most important texts in Western Civilization, striking a tone between the epic and Hee Haw, but it is also one of the most profoundly elegiac meditations of the dialectic of the American Enlightenment in U.S. Cinema, the eternal struggle of the head and the heart for the direction of personal liberty.
The movie boasts a picaresque, episodic plot, following the exploits of Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill and his two even more dim-witted cronies (John Turtorro, Tim Blake Nelson) on a three-day trek to the former’s Mississippi hometown to recover loot from a bank robbery before a dam floods the hiding place. Many events directly mirror plot points in The Odyssey. As escaped convicts, they are pursued by the Furies, led by a Southern sheriff donning shades reflecting the numerous barns set ablaze in his search for the miscreants. The wanderers also encounter lotus eaters in the form of a Baptist immersion ceremony, sirens with the alchemistic power to turn men into toads, and even a Cyclops (John Goodman). Homer, appearing in the guise of a blind African American push cart operator, even issues prophcsies that his listeners lack the context to comprehend. Upon arriving in what equates to a rustic version of Ithaca, McGill tries to reclaim the vacillating heart of his wife (Holly Hunter), who’s had enough of her spouse’s illegal shenanigans.
McGill operates by f deception. He spins false tales of buried loot to convince his fellow chain gang members to escape from prison. He steals watches and food for sustenance, and poses in several guises to evade the scrutiny of authorities. This wiliness bears an Odyssean resemblance, except that eventually poor Everett keeps punching above his weight. Authorities of various stripes always find him out, forcing him to concoct elaborate escapes and subterfuges. He only succeeds to a limited degree because the various communities he encounters seem blissfully unaware of the signifiers that would give him away. Likewise, he is ignorant to the fact that an expediential musical endeavor for quick cash has made him a regional celebrity. McGill mistakes localized compartmentalization of knowledge for an incapacity for rational thought, seeing the qualities of religiosity and compassion as a weakness he can prey upon. Such ignorance born of cultural fragmentation, however, provides a form of salvation, and even a form of clairvoyant knowledge, that the protagonist only barely perceives at the end of his adventure.
McGill’s doppelganger is Mississippi Governor Pappy O Daniel (Charles Durning), a colorful populist demagogue modeled after Jimmy Davis, who catapulted to political heights in Louisiana on tails of his sentimental ballad “You Are <y Sunshine”, which the movie often associates with the character. O’Daniel, who is also flanked by two dimwitted advisors, first encounters and brushes off the escapees as they leave a recording studio/radio station that the politician uses to do some “mass communicatin’” with his constituents. O’Daniel’s show, like the dam threatening to cover McGill’s “treasure”, constitutes a new wave of progress transforming the South. His political future lies with using media to initiate a form of cultural amalgamation in which the boundaries between communities are integrated into shared symbols of regional solidarity, diminishing the spaces in which McGill’s band operate.
In the end, each ends up helping the other, with O’ Daniel providing clemency for the “Soggy Bottom Boys” who reciprocate by providing cultural cover to the governor’s opportunism. Having won back his wife’s affection, McGill and crew proceed to the old homestead to recover his wife’s wedding ring. There, however, O’Daniel’s beneficence can’t protect them from warden’s hounds, which operate outside of the range of radio waves. When a panic stricken prayer for salvation is answered in the form of a great flood, McGill confronts the possibility for the existence of phenomena beyond the logician’s mere faith in cause and effect.
In their influential study on the industrial revolution and the birth of mass culture, Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno posited that Odysseus was the prototype of the modern self, a figure who frames his relationship to society through instrumental problem solving. This reflects many standard concepts about the historical period of the Enlightenment: that it was a period concerned with understanding natural laws and using them to benefit production of goods and services and make a better society. The consequence was that universal notions of a mechanistic universe replaced local forms of knowledge operating in effect before becoming integrated under the regime of reason. While operating on a different scale of influence, both McGill and O’Daniel present themselves as men of reason, justifying their actions on the notion that people can be persuaded to join a better interest that would benefit their own. Through their behavior O Brother self-consciously pronounces that its vision of “the South” is a historicist construct of modern times, not an authentic depiction of a specific culture in a particular time.
Yet the Coen Brothers, in contrasting the aims of the two antagonists/partners, understand that the American Enlightenment can’t be reduced to logical absolutes. Whereas O’Daniel only seeks political power through progress and cultural integration, McGill, simply, follows his heart. For all of his faults, he possesses a self knowledge of a personal truth, based on feeling, and a faith that he can bring that feeling back into the world. He uses the study of human nature as a means for personal achievement, framed in the sentimental construct of love and family, not, as O’Daniels does, as a means to abstract political power.
McGill, in his wayward fashion, embodies the notion of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” enshrined in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson’s significant contribution to the oligarchic justifications of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. The American Spirit is one of feeling born of individual passion and sentiment, not a pursuit of universal truth as an objective onto itself. The Coens see this spirit embodied in the earlier canonical works of American literature, in the lost soul of Rip Van Winkle, and in Natty Bumpo’s banishment into the wilderness at the end of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers. They depict a desire to seek personal fulfillment in a notion of freedom untethered to progress. Through comedy, however, they insert a level of irony into the text that dramatizes the impossibility of this fulfillment in modernity.
The character who best represents this conflict is Mrs. McGill (Holly Hunter), who is torn between raising her daughters under the mantle of respectability and the feelings she has towards her husband. Everett will never be “bona fide” by both his stature in the class system and through the shifty ways he tries to overcome his disadvantage. Consequently, she sends him on labors to demonstrate his commitment to his stated affections, only to set off new rounds of misadventure. At the films closing, he must find a wedding ring at the bottom of a lake to appease her. As the couple, with their kids in tow, exit screen right, we catch a final image of Homer on his push cart, following an alternate path to the future.
In this conclusion, we experience a beautiful, melancholic moment. As in the later nationalist epics of John Ford, one becomes aware that the passage of history into myth calls exposes the glossy veneer that popular culture overlays over the past. In this case, the viability of sentimental enlightenment, the notion that reason is an instrument of the heart’s desire, is but a shadow in a legacy of mass culture. The distinct willfulness of individual self achievement merely follows a force of progress; it is not its instrument. The diversity of American communities can only be reduced to a cockeyed caravan of cornpone eccentricity. Charming as it is as a reflection of our need for reassurance, this past is through with us.