The trailers piqued my interest, but we have all seen
movies bested by their trailers. In
those cases, the sum is actually less than its parts. It wasn’t until a friend touted Brother as one of the top five films he’d seen that I was
convinced it was worth the 15 dollars and the risk of wasting a rare evening
alone with my wife.
Going in, I knew nothing about the film.
I knew who George Clooney was and thought he was a good actor but had
never seen him in a context that would warrant an exceptional performance.
Might as well let the cat out of the bag now, everything about this film
is exceptional, from the concept, script, structure, production, direction,
score, and cinematography to most certainly the acting.
The film centers on the main character, Ulysses Everett
McGill (Clooney), and his two prison-mates, Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and
Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), and their adventures following their escape.
The film is loosely organized on The
Odyssey by Homer and set in immediate post-Depression Mississippi.
As Robert Oermann
wrote in the liner notes for the soundtrack, this allows for an interesting mix
of classical Greek and Southern archetypes throughout the three escapees’
escapades. The adventures begin
with the chain gang crossing the path of a prophet who utters his oracle and
sets the unfolding of the film. The
prophet is an eccentric, blind, and elderly black Southern male with piercing,
blank eyes. He is piloting a
manually powered rail car and gives the escapees a lift.
Along the way, the three encounter a congregation proceeding to a baptism
in a river. Pete and Delmar
enthusiastically join the procession and submit to baptism believing it to
cleanse them and result in the commutation of their sentence.
There is also the seemingly chance encounter with the Sirens who seduce
the three under their “spell” and “turn” Pete into a horny toad.
It is in these situations that the acting really shines.
An actor friend of mine stated he thought the roles in Brother would be easy to overact.
He is right. The fact that you
actually believe Ulysses and Delmar sincere in their belief that Pete is a toad,
testifies to the preciseness of the acting.
The archetypes continue in a number of cameo-like
appearances. All are brilliantly
done. Continuing the parallel with The
Odyssey, John Goodman represents the Cyclops as the patched-eye, Bible
salesman, Big Dan Teague, who dupes McGill and Delmar and gains their trust only
to leave them beaten and a bit poorer. Michael
Badalucco (The Practice) stars as George Babyface Nelson, a notorious bank
robber who’s a bit consumed with disproving the apparent charm of boyish
countenance. He also leaves the
wayward band with funds to continue their journey.
Above all, and worth the price of admission, is the role played by
Stephen Root (Jimmy James on NewsRadio). He
plays the blind radio station manager who records the Soggy Bottom Boys’ hit
“Man of Constant Sorrows.” The
recording becomes the smash hit in the
Southeast. The song garners greater
success when the mystery band cannot be found.
Joining the trio in the recording is Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King).
He represents the blues legend Robert Johnson who supposedly sold his
soul to the devil in exchange for success as a performer.
True to the legend the trio picks Tommy up at the crossroads where he
waits with guitar in hand.
There are several other story lines in the film including
the race for the governor’s office, which adequately tells of the populism
common during that time. All
sub-plots weave in and out of the main theme and coalesce to produce a seamless
whole. The moviegoer is never left
confused by dangling story lines. Resolution
is achieved for all without being artificial.
Brother is a comedy but more in
the Shakespearean tradition, not of the Tommy
Boy slapstick vein. By this I
mean the movie’s objective is more than mere laughter, a noble cause
nonetheless. There is substance to
the film. The mode of delivery is
simply not one of solemn drama or an academic dissertation.
There are the themes of loyalty in friendship, celebration,
the hatred of racism, and even repentance and theism. In the midst of these, the treasure of family stood out most
to this writer. As the prophet set
forth in his oracle, “You will find a fortune but not the fortune you seek.”
As Ulysses declares to his long, lost daughters, he is in fact the Pater
Familia and a train hadn’t killed him.
For Ulysses, the fortune is his family.
As Tristan Gylberd has written, “Family life provides men with a proper
sense of identity. In the midst of
our families we can know and be known. We
can taste the joys and sorrows of genuine intimacy. We can gain a vision of life that is sober and sure.”
O Brother Where Art Thou genuinely
makes you laugh while engaging your mind. It
creates a sober awareness of the true centrality of kin.
It is a delight. O Brother is bona fide.