Today’s topic: the death of the American Dream in O Brother Where Art Thou. There have been countless movies dedicated to the glorious understanding of the term “American Dream”, movies that won plenty of Oscars such as the legendary tale of a simple man who turns into an all star boxing champ in Rocky or even the story of greedy Wall Street businessmen in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. The audiences clearly from the very beginning wanted to envision something so distant, so unreachable for the most part of the public: rise from nothing and either win everything or end up in the gutter. This concept was already born back in the early 1950s: the age of making business, living in suburbs, driving your own car, having preferably a four member family and breathing fresh air. So why isn’t Hollywood interested in showing that this “dream” is for the most part a simple illusion created by day-to-day advertisement, dirty politics and irrational thinking? Well, because Hollywood used to and still does up to this day produce what the public wants to see and believe. That’s why it takes a duo of brothers to abolish the idea that everyone loves. I’m talking about the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan.
The brothers from Minnesota are part of the last generation of writer-directors independent from the Hollywood way of filmmaking; they have their own style, their own set of rules and ideas, their own language and tone and something that is extremely rare in today’s movies – originality. Their voices resonate in a world where everything must obey someone or something. With the Coens the viewer never really knows what he’s about to watch – be it the story of a husband who plans to kidnap his wife for ransom money in Fargo or the story of a pacifist stoner who investigates the disappearance of a millionaire’s wife in The Big Lebowski, the two writer-directors have never stayed on the same track. The same thing happens when we watch O Brother Where Art Thou, the tale of three prisoners trying to find their way to a hidden treasure in 1930s Mississippi. In this 2003 Oscar nominated picture, we’re given all the realities of the American South, and not only. The brothers intend to present us the main problems revolving around race, money, corruption, the musical scene and human intellect that are still relevant up to this day and age on a worldwide scale.
Labeled as a comedy, the film starts off with the sound of hammers beating on rocks, the voices of black prisoners chanting; we open up to a chain-gang. Hundreds of prisoners slamming their hammers against the dusty ground, guarded by armed deputies, under the heavy sunlight, dressed in plain striped uniforms, singing. The sepia cinematography by master Roger Deakins is used here to make us reflect on the whole situation right from the opening: prisoners, guards, in colour they’re all the same, it’s the politics that divide them. One holds a sledgehammer, the other a loaded rifle.
When the three protagonists – Everett, Delmar and Pete – escape the chain-gang and manage to find shelter at Pete’s cousin’s house we’re presented with another problem; poverty. The three feast on a tasty dinner made of delicious horse stew – only problem is Pete’s cousin couldn’t afford anything else than the corpse of his rotting dead horse. And when the law enforcement comes looking for the three ex-cons, Pete’s cousin rats them out. Poverty, in a world where only the supreme and powerful have a say, leads to betrayal. Anything for money, for a hot plate, a cup of coffee, anything. Even your own cousin’s life. But that’s not the end of it. The boys, after successfully escaping a wave of other mishappenings, stumble into Baby Face Nelson (one of the most ruthless gangsters of the 30s America). They witness the madman driving a fast running car, shooting whatever his eyes catch – be it police cars or cows. And yet, when the day comes to an end, and the four men find themselves around a bonfire, resting, Baby Face Nelson melts down; from a murderous criminal he turns into a frightened child. And like that, he says goodbye to the gang and walks away, looking down, almost crying. The Coens write their characters with the highest number of contradictions they can come up with, and yet they still manage to leave these characters with a sense of humanity, and make them as realistic as possible; because they know, unlike most directors and screenwriters today, that people are not one dimensional. Even a feared gangster can still be a man deep down his soul, since there is no such thing as a lost cause in the Coens’ book, anything’s possible.
When Delmar and Pete jump into the river to wash away their sins, we get a taste of human naivety and innocence. Hundreds of people, dressed in white, chanting “Oh brother let’s go down! Let’s go down to the river!” make their way through the thick bushes and twisted forest branches, finally stepping into the cold water of the Mississippi. It’s as if we’re witnessing a passage from the Holy Book, and indeed we witness a religious procession; salvation. Everett watches in disbelief as his two pals run to the priest, who helps them wash away their sins. The two prisoners believe it, the other hundred members believe it, a whole nation believes it. Or maybe they just wish they could believe it. The Coens want the audience to question the different point of views: who’s right? Everett for despising the religious act of salvation? Or Delmar and Pete for being so naive as to think that their criminal past could be forgotten with a simple splash of water? We even get to judge their choices when they’re confronted by a trio of beautiful sirens; like in Homer’s Odyssey, the gorgeous creatures lead the men to lose sight of their objective, slowing down the gang’s mission.
No worries. The Coen bros move when they know the territory. Who other than the Coens would have the guts and brains to write a State Governor candidate as the prime member of the local Ku Klux Klan? It’s a kick in the face to all those who think politics can be run honestly, all those who think that a good man can be a rich man. Fairy tales are for children. Here, the candidate running for Governor’s office organizes a private lynching of a black folk musician. The very man who wishes to run one of the largest states in the US hums to the drum roll’s rhythm, lights a crucifix and reaches out with a rope in his hand. If you think about it, the Coens’ crazy fantasy can be considered terrifying reality. Food for thought.
The music. The music is the movie. Be it swing, country, folk, jazz, work songs, the music in O Brother tells the journey of the characters. The songs contain countless stories of spoiled politicians, prisoners having to work all day long, struggling musicians, devoted believers and starving farmers. The Coen brothers use music as a flashlight for the viewer, for him to find his way out of this messy, bizarre tale of men seeking a fortune… that in the end is not the fortune they seek. Their music describes the pain and suffering of a whole world, which keeps on dreaming, believing fantasies and apparitions. There is no American Dream within this music, nor within this life. And like that, with a simple comedy we’re taught what we’ve been always ignoring.
Be your own shepard. Dream later.