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John DoughertyApril 19, 2024
Touchstone Pictures

No one would ever mistake the Coen brothers for Catholic filmmakers. Joel and Ethan Coen— the Academy Award and Palme d’Or winning duo behind “Fargo,“The Big Lebowski,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” and more—grew up Jewish in the Minneapolis suburbs. But their films tend towards an absurdist worldview (even those that deal directly with Judaism, like “A Serious Man”), where life is ruled by random chance and tragedy is indistinguishable from farce. That cynical perspective is as strong as ever in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000), but it is also arguably the most positive work the Coens have ever made about faith. At the heart of the film is a message about embracing the unknown that both believers and cynics can appreciate.

Inspired by the ancient Greek epic poem “The Odyssey,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” follows three escaped convicts crossing the American South during the Great Depression, seeking a treasure that will give them a second lease on life. They are: the erudite (or erudite-sounding) Everett (played by George Clooney), the gentle but slow-witted Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and the short-tempered Pete (John Turturro). Along the way they become unknowing players in a political campaign, record a hit song and meet oddballs and monsters that even Homer never dreamed of, all while trying to stay ahead of a grim sheriff determined to see them dead (Daniel von Bargen).

“Everybody’s lookin’ for answers,” Everett observes. He considers himself a great intellect and uses his expansive vocabulary to impress and deflect his comrades’ doubts. He’s dismissive of anything that can’t be explained by reason alone. “The South is gonna change,” he tells his compatriots. “Out with old spiritual mumbo-jumbo, the superstition and the backward ways. We’re gonna see a brave new world where they run everyone a wire and hook us all up to the grid. Yessir, a veritable age of reason.”

At one point, they encounter a flock of white-clothed men and women, making their way to the river to be baptized (accompanied by a beautiful version of “Down to the River to Pray” sung by Alison Krauss). Delmar runs straight for the water and Pete, once he realizes that baptism cancels out his previous sins, quickly joins. Everett sneers and refuses to take part. When the trio begins to encounter obstacles at every turn, Everett’s friends are sure that he has offended God. Everett maintains that it’s all just bad luck. The film itself is agnostic: it’s equally likely that they’re victims of circumstance or divine retribution. Regardless, Everett’s comfortable certainty weakens over the course of their adventures. Faced with the unknowable, Everett eventually must surrender to what he can’t understand. In doing so, he opens himself to new, previously unimaginable possibilities—including the possibility of salvation.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is the closest that the Coens have come to making a musical, and the film’s lush period folk soundtrack enriches its spiritual themes. Even when the words are sung by unbelievers, they attest to the presence of God and the promise of redemption in this life or the next. Take “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which the main characters perform under the band name the Soggy Bottom Boys to make a quick buck (and that becomes, unbeknownst to them, an enormous radio hit). On lead vocals, Everett (his singing voice provided by bluegrass musician Dan Tyminski) sings from the perspective of a weary wanderer—sound familiar?—who nonetheless concludes: “I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.” Maybe they’re just words, or maybe they express something deeper and truer, a sacred yearning that even the relentlessly rational Everett harbors deep in his heart.

Everett is right. Everyone is looking for answers—in religion, politics, science, relationships, music. But when those answers aren’t forthcoming, the best we can do is embrace the unknown. Some might call that absurdity. I call it faith.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is streaming on Hulu.

More: Film / Music

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