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The Coen Brothers are a renowned talent in the film industry, siblings who carry a lot of expectation and hype with them – as all their cinematic offerings to date have been intricately designed and executed. I first came across their work in Fargo, their 1996 hit that delighted audiences and critics alike for its biting humour and electric storytelling.

The next, and only other, film of theirs I have seen so far is O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens’ take on Homer’s Odyssey. Featuring one of my favourite actors of today – George Clooney – and supported by some Coen regulars, it certainly got off to a good start on paper…

The Film
Clooney plays Everett Ulysses McGill, a silver tongued, petty criminal who finds himself on the wrong end of a chain gang in deepest Mississippi. Together with a clumsy duo of lame losers, simple minded Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and maladjusted Pete (John Turturro), he scams his way off the chain gang and into the adventure of a lifetime as the three set off in search of a fortune in buried treasure... still shackled and hopelessly unprepared for the road ahead. On their way they encounter family members with curious eating habits; a corrupt, thieving, one-eyed, bible salesmen and a clairvoyant oracle; get swept up in the political machinations of the time; and maybe even come up against the devil himself.

The premise to O Brother, Where Art Thou? is original, that’s for sure: setting the Odyssey in a 20th century setting, with music interspersed with quirky characters and quirky situations. The music arises when the trio decide to earn a bit of cash at a radio station by recording the song, ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’, which goes onto become a huge hit in the state of Mississippi. More is presented in accordance with some religious rituals (very important to everyday life in the Deep South, especially back in the 1930s) and other assorted scenarios.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro deliver some very amusing and engaging performances as the three main protagonists, each displaying a combination of dimwittedness and the odd dose of wit: mainly coming from Mr Clooney as Ulysses McGill. His comments on life, and the reactions from the other two, are priceless; and become the main driving force behind the film…their chemistry, developed through the script and also through their talent (both individually and as an ensemble), is a real highlight.

Casting is another source of approbation, as the supporting cast not only have some great characters to sink their teeth into, but they also get the chance to flex their acting muscles in something a bit more idiosyncratic than your usual Hollywood fare.

The direction is also something to be commended – Joel Coen (the only ‘official’ director, although I suspect brother Ethan, who also serves as co-writer with Joel, had a lot of input into the helming) establishes the setting with panache and the distinct visual style, emphasising the Depression era, compliments the film enormously.

Although I have not witnessed much of the Coens’ work, from what others have said they appear to be modern geniuses of sort. Working out of the usual shackles of the studio system, their low-budget and sometimes under-appreciated works are something refreshing to delve into, with O Brother, Where Art Thou? being no exception. Thus, the only real criticism that I can level at this film is that perhaps it is too ‘far out’ in some respects to be too well received by some audiences, and serves as lightweight and quirky entertainment rather than more accessible films from other writers and directors.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is presented in a pleasing 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, with the visuals deep and well defined – complementing the unique and excellent look of the film immensely. The palette is diverse and well employed, with various different hues and colours deployed to endorse the setting and make the whole thing look more palpable and realistic. There were no compression signs or other artefacts visible, so although this doesn’t have the sheer crispness and clarity to warrant a ‘reference material’ tag, it is incredibly well done.

We get a nice platter of soundtracks to choose from: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, German, Italian & Spanish), which are fairly good stabs at sonic greatness. The main audio stream is constantly crisp and clear, with the (excellent) dialogue presented well throughout, and when the surrounds are used they are used to good effect – although my only gripe is that they aren’t used frequently enough, and also there could be a little more rear channel definition. Nevertheless, the subwoofer is fairly active, and overall the audio mixes are good enough.

Absolutely nothing, unfortunately. This would have been a golden opportunity to present some quality extra material, but instead we receive zilch – even though consumers still have to pay out good money to get their hands on this disc: if other titles, priced the same, get special features, why can’t this?

The menus are completely static, presented in the old and horrible Universal style of their logos littering their screen (these logos aim to ‘define’ the options…but are ugly and look very out of place). They are, thankfully, easy to navigate, which is some form of (slim) compensation.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

From the amusing opening of three men running, shackled, across a field in Mississippi; to the bunch of eclectic characters and situations they encounter, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an entertaining piece of celluloid, to say the least. Although a bit too lighthearted and fun to be considered ‘serious’ entertainment, worthy of a perfect score, this film is nonetheless deserving of a very good score.

The disc itself is good in ways, but poor in others. The video is the highlight – crisp and clear throughout – and the audio comes a close second…the real shame is to be found in the extras, or to be more precise, their nonexistent nature. However, this has been rectified with the R2 version of the film: a 2-disc collector’s edition was released that can now be found for a relatively cheap price on the Internet. I can only recommend that you purchase this R4 version if you don’t mind having no extras; otherwise go for the superior R2 collector’s edition.