O Brother, Where Art Thou? Review

After their success in the '80s and '90s, the Coen brothers were renowned talent in the film industry, siblings who carried 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, and have since gone on to experience some of their other gems.

After tackling many issues ranging from corrupt car salesmen, Depression-era gangsters and philosophical barbers, in 2000 they decided to turn to Homer's Odyssey as the source for their next inspiration. George Clooney was recruited to play 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.

Alongside the narrative the Coens chose to intersperse music, 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, before they continue across the state integrating into various rituals and lifestyles!

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.

The supporting cast are equally impressive, playing idiosyncratic parts with flair and ingenuity that can only be found in something with the Coen name attached. For example, John Goodman plays the aforementioned one-eyed Bible salesmen with an unpredictability that leads to a strong screen presence: as well as offering many laughs to the audience.

As always, Joel Coen's techniques and style behind the camera need to be commended – and although I suspect, as with all Coen films, that brother Ethan gave a helping hand, but Joel gets sole billing on the credits. The visuals define the setting with panache, and the Depression-era is emphasised well, thus complimenting the film enormously.

Working out of the usual shackles of the studio system, the Coens' low-budget and sometimes under-appreciated works are something refreshing to delve into, with O Brother, Where Art Thou? being no exception. The only real criticism that I can level at this film is it’s perhaps too 'far out' in some respects to be well received by some audiences, and serves as lightweight and quirky entertainment, rather than more accessible films from other writers and directors.

The Disc
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.

The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a transfer that is excellent in reproducing the vibrant colours and hues through its palette, and the visuals remain deep and well defined throughout. The print is crisp and clear, with no signs of dust or grain, and no compression signs to speak of. Not reference quality, but for a film that obviously wasn't blessed with a large budget, it is very accomplished.

A handful of soundtracks are provided for the different linguists among us – Dolby Digital 5.1 (English) is the main mix, but German, Italian and Spanish viewers are also catered for, all in 5.1 glory. The main audio stream is crisp and clear throughout, with dialogue reproduced well, and when the surrounds are used they are deployed to good effect – only slight shame is that they just aren't used enough to create an absorbing soundstage. There could also be a bit more rear-channel definition, but the subwoofer is adequate in its use, so overall this, again, is accomplished.

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?

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 enjoyable and entertaining way to spend two hours of your life. The disc, however, is a different kettle of fish altogether. The video and audio may be strong but the extras are literally non-existent – not even a measly trailer is supplied. This has now been rectified by the R2 2-disc collector's edition, which can be found cheaply if you shop around, so overall I can only really recommend this R4 version if you don’t mind missing out on extra material.

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