Wednesday, May 11, 2011

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)


     I haven’t seen that many films made by the Coen brothers—that is, writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen. I have not seen “Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski”, or “A Serious Man”. I have seen “No Country for Old Men”, “True Grit”, and most recently, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” But what I can already tell about the Coen brothers’ films is that they have a great sense of humor. Some of their films are darker than others, but they are all still pretty funny. Today’s movie is probably the funniest Coen brothers’ film I’ve seen yet. I vaguely remember reading “The Odyssey” by Homer early on in high school (the work which this film is loosely based on), but I do know that Homer’s story wasn’t as funny as this one—but both works come to (what I think is) an equal spiritual level.

     However, the spirituality in “The Odyssey” was probably more about ancient legends of gods and myths. “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, set in 1930’s Mississippi, focuses on different modern faiths, including Christianity. The film opens with Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) escaping a chain gang in order to look for a treasure. When running through the woods, they come across a congregation dressed in white walking to a nearby river, singing a Gospel tune as members are baptized. Delmar is transfixed: he runs to the preacher and is baptized. When he tells his two companions excitedly that the preacher told him his sins were forgiven, Pete runs in as well. Everett, however, is doubtful.

EVERETT: Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi's a little more hard-nosed. Baptism! You two are just dumber than a bag of hammers!

     And their journey to find the treasure continues. They meet up with Tommy Johnson, a young African-American man who says he just sold his soul to the devil. In exchange, apparently the devil gave him the ability to play the guitar. And along the way, the four of them meet up with a blind music producer who records music out of his home. The four runaways, calling themselves “The Soggy Bottom Boys”, record a song that becomes a huge hit. When police figure out that three of those boys have escaped a chain gang, they go on the hunt for them.

     As the four of them continue their journey, Tommy goes his separate way, and the three runaways meet George Nelson, a vain gangster who gets them to help him rob a bank—in the least exciting way possible. That night, Nelson gives them his share of the money and walks off, and Everett decides that he is looking for something else fulfilling. He tells his companions, however, that Nelson will be on top again. Later on, at a political rally (the race for mayor is between current mayor Pappy O’Daniel and opponent Homer Stokes), Everett finds his daughters and learns that when his wife left him, she told them that he’d been hit by a train. When Everett finds Daisy, his wife (Holly Hunter), he learns that she is remarrying. Everett is distraught.

     If you’ve seen the movie, you know that there’s a lot that I’m not mentioning here. Well, there’s a lot that happens in this movie, but in the end, the three run into a Ku Klux Klan meeting—led by none other than Homer Stokes. They have captured Tommy and are about to lynch him. The three runaways break up the meeting, get Tommy back, and end up at a political convention for O’Daniel where they perform their hit single. Everett’s wife is there, and she is stunned. Stokes also shows up and tries to convince the audience that the Soggy Bottom Boys are guilty of… breaking up a lynch mob meeting. So it’s no use: Stokes is booed out of the auditorium, and O’Daniel makes a statement:

O’DANIEL: Sounded to me that [Stokes] was harboring some kinda hateful grudge against the Soggy Bottom Boys on account a’ their rough and rowdy past. Looks like Homer Stokes is the kinda fella who likes to cast the first stone! Well, I’m with you folks! I’m a forgive-and-forget Christian. And I say, if their rambunctiousness and misdemeanoring is behind them—(to Everett, seriously) it is, ain’t it, boys?

EVERETT: Uh, yes sir, it is.

O’DANIEL: Well then I say, by the power vested in me, these boys is hereby pardoned!

     The crowd goes wild. Everett and Daisy are now on good terms—until she learns that Everett doesn’t have a ring for her. Then she leaves him again. And as the Soggy Bottom Boys go off into the woods again, they pass George Nelson, on his way to the electric chair, smiling and yelling as always.

     I’ll stop here for a second and say: yes, Paddy O’Daniel is probably referencing John 8, where Jesus pardons a woman caught in the act of adultery. The Pharisees brought her to him and challenged him, saying that Moses says such women should be stoned to death. Jesus starts writing in the ground and responds: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (8:7) The authorities leave, and soon it is just Jesus and the woman there. John writes, “Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’” (8:10-11) This is a powerful story of forgiveness that shows that even though we may have been caught in sin, we all have sinned, and Jesus can forgive us all.
     However, the only way he can forgive us and save us is if we ask. This brings us to the very end of the movie. The police have caught up with the runaways, and when they don’t believe them when they say that the mayor has pardoned them, they get the nooses ready. Everett, Pete, and Delmar are about to meet their death. But they all stop to pray before being hanged—even Everett. Everett gets down on his knees and asks sincerely: 
EVERETT: Lord, please look down and recognize us poor sinners. Please, Lord, I just want to see my daughters again. I’ve been separated from my family for so long. I know I’ve been guilty of pride and sharp dealing. I’m sorry that I turned my back on you. Forgive me. Help us, Lord, for the sake of my family. For Tommy’s sake, for Delmar’s and Pete’s. Let me see my daughters again, Lord. Help us, please.
     Oh yeah, I probably should have mentioned this. The three of them mentioned earlier on in the film that a dam was being built on the river. It just happened to be built that day. So after Everett finishes praying, water starts flowing underneath their feet, and suddenly, a huge rushing water floods the valley. Everett tries to convince himself that “there’s a perfectly scientific explanation for what just happened”, but Pete and Delmar believe it was a miracle and an answer to prayer.
     My prayer for you, the reader, is that today you will find God’s forgiveness. Whatever you are guilty of, I believe He can wash your sins away through the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for your sins and mine.

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