Saturday, January 22, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

Now that we're eight films deep in the Coen Brothers' oeuvre – and therefore at the halfway point of their career to date – its time to take stock of their films' common attributes.  The brothers' work tends to be set in the past (even the relatively contemporary Fargo and The Big Lebowski are set in 1987 and the days of the first Gulf War, respectively) and in very specific cultural milieus.  The generally cartoonish characters tend to speak with exaggerated accents and strange enunciations that skirt the edge of parody, yet the dialogue and the actors' delivery of it is too carefully planned-out and controlled to be described as broad.  Joel and Ethan's narratives tend to be grounded in familiar genre archetypes, though the very basic plots usually become more and more hysterically convoluted as the characters' stupidity drives them ever further from their original goal.  And all of it is handsomely designed, filmed, and edited, with the Coens' impressive technical skill usually reaching its apex in a handful of oddly staged and unusually vivid setpieces.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) is perhaps the definitive Coen Brothers film – not their finest work, or the most ambitious or most mature, but the one that most clearly embodies all of the best and worst qualities of their artistry, and the one that cements who they are as filmmakers after over fifteen years of hyperactive genre-hopping.

O Brother is set in the south during the Great Depression – not in something approaching the actual dustbowl, mind you, but the kind of fantasy Americana playground where a pie is on every windowsill and impromptu hoedowns occur as soon as someone decides to break into song.  As usual, the Coens approach this setting with a snarky air of superiority, viewing the past (and the American south) with a sense of hip, ironic detachment, even as they don't seem remotely interested in learning about the actual time or place where their story is set.  Fortunately, the duo seem to be as genuinely amused by old-timey Americana as they are interested in ridiculing it, and there is a much greater sense of playful joy in O Brother than there is in their previous forays into the distant past, Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). 

A big part of the film's less cynical, more jovial tone is in their delightful use of period folk, country, and blues music, some of which is taken from original recordings and some of which has been covered by contemporary artists, and all of which was supervised and produced by T-Bone Burnett.  Burnett's smart use of sleazy '70s rock was a major boon to The Big Lebowski (1998), but his work here is on a whole other level.  In fact, the music of O Brother is its most well-known attribute, and it plays an even more integral role in establishing the film's atmosphere than the elaborate bric-a-brac of the production design or the precise diction of the dialogue.  Practically every track is a knockout, from the rocking "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" to the hypnotic nursery rhyme "Didn't Leave Nobody But The Baby" to the goofy novelty song "Indian War Whoop."  Whenever the film turns into a musical, it feels livelier and more inclusive than any Coen film to this point, though they've arguably been moving in this slightly more humanist direction since Fargo (1996).

Fargo was one of the first Coen films to feature a likeable protagonist – Nicolas Cage's character in Raising Arziona (1987) was endearingly wacky, but he was an anomaly in the Coens' early work – though the way that the filmmakers achieved this likeability, by making Frances McDormand's character a paragon of virtue in a world of corrupt or incompetent hicks, didn't entirely mitigate the brothers' uninspiring worldview.  Having finally delivered two appealing, recognizably human major character in The Big Lebowski, the Coens' expand their compassion a bit by giving viewers a trio of loveable chain gang-escapees as protagonists.  While George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson's characters here aren't as fully fleshed-out or as nuanced as Jeff Bridges and John Goodman's characters in Lebowski, and the trio are largely defined by their stupidity (or vanity, in Clooney's case), the actors are at least allowed to give winning, charming performances.  Nelson, in particular, goes way beyond the call of duty by giving his stock dimwit character a fully lived-in feel, and he manages to make his character's child-like innocence as big a virtue as his stupidity is a liability.  The goodwill doesn't extend to all of the supporting players, which is especially evident during a tone-deaf bit involving a Ku Klux Klan rally, which seems to mostly exist to give the audience a simple reason to dislike several minor villainous characters.  But the Coens are at least continuing to make progress as humanists.

They haven't lost a step in terms of technical skill, either.  O Brother features the expected gorgeous camerawork from Roger Deakins, which beautifully captures the wildly ornate sets and gives a palpable sense of just how sweaty the film's universe is.  The setpieces are as visceral and creatively staged as we've come to expect from the Coen Brothers by this point, with a car chase involving a gun-downed cow being a particularly weird highlight.  But the Coens' sense of pacing fails them somewhat this time out (a recurring, though fairly minor, problem).  Relentless busyness worked for The Big Lebowski, but the rush to cram in as much stuff as possible seems a little off-putting in O Brother's "old weird America" setting.  Stand-ins for Robert Johnston and Babyface Nelson receive lyrical moments when, respectively, they explain how the devil looks or experience a moment of depression after the manic rush of a series of bank robberies, but the Coens cut away from these scenes too soon for them to be truly powerful.  And their detached worldview prevents the film from fully following its more delightfully whimsical moments; wouldn't it have been more interesting if the film had left the notion that Turturro had been transformed into a frog as an open question instead of using it as yet another example of Nelson's dumbness?  Despite these flaws, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of the Coen Brothers' most charming films to this point, and a fine summary of their identity as auteurs.

UP NEXT  The Man Who Wasn't There

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