When asked to pick my favorite Coen Brothers’ picture to show as part of Pack Memorial Library’s Coen Brothers film series, my choice was a no-brainer. For my money, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) is unequivocally the Coens at their creative best, and as I see it, it makes for their most completely satisfying picture to date.
Loosely based on The Odyssey, the movie is Homer by way of Preston Sturges (taking its title from Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941)), with a pinch of The Wizard of Oz and Busby Berkley thrown in for good measure (to name but a few influences). The story—involving three escaped prisoners (George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) roaming through the Depression-era South in search of treasure—is typical of the Coens, but at the same time sets itself aside from the remainder of their filmography. The same concerns are there. Aside from the existence of their usual quirkiness, the Coens—much like the titular character in their Barton Fink (1991)—have had an obsession with the “common man,” and O Brother follows suit. However, the film is their most playful—both stylistically and thematically—from its excellent bluegrass soundtrack, which almost qualifies it as a musical, to the fact that it’s one of only three Coen films not to earn an R rating. It’s likely the closest we’ll ever come to modern day Sturges, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s somehow a cheap knockoff. Because, as with every Coen Brothers picture, it is a vision wholly and uniquely their own.