After a career as cult heroes, the Coen brothers and Sam Raimi received accolades and mainstream recognition for films set in the snowy climes of their youth (Fargo and A Simple Plan). Minnesotans Joel and Ethan Coen and Detroiter Raimi, collaborators and friends, once again find themselves on similar terrain with O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Gift, stories set in the mythical South of their fertile imaginations.
This time out, the Coens have made their looniest all-out comedy since Raising Arizona, yet their zaniness is infused with a weird warmth and affection. Their detractors usually call this writing-directing team (who also edit their films under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) chilly and condescending, but that’s not the case with O Brother. The film’s antecedents are as oddball as the film itself: It’s based on Homer’s The Odyssey and the title comes from Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, where a Hollywood director of screwball comedies wants to make an earnest dramatic film about the Great Depression, goes on the road to see the real America and winds up on a chain gang.
That’s where O Brother, Where Art Thou? commences, as Ulysses Everett McGill (a goofy and verbose George Clooney), along with cronies Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) make their escape from a Mississippi prison crew. This motley trio, as comic and inextricably linked as the Three Stooges, head for Everett’s buried treasure, a path which quickly resembles a dangerous obstacle course.
As filmmakers, the Coen brothers are known for reinventing any genre they tackle, but they’ve taken sampling to new heights, transforming old sundries into something fresh. The characters here are often larger-than-life (Charles Durning’s sly mogul-politician-radio host, John Goodman’s duplicitous Bible salesman, Michael Badalucco’s manic-depressive bank robber), yet seem perfectly appropriate for this topsy-turvy era in America.
O Brother also looks remarkable, with film stock manipulated so that it appears to be elegantly tinted black-and-white. A superb sound track (compiled by musician T-Bone Burnett) of old-time and bluegrass songs functions as more than background: These cheeky siblings have actually made their first musical, a witty exploration of fame as America’s great leveler.
Meanwhile, in The Gift, Sam Raimi has taken on a different literary genre, the Southern gothic thriller. In the fictitious Brixton, Ga. — which nonetheless feels so real that life seems to be going on at its own pace regardless of the camera — Annie Wilson (Australian chameleon Cate Blanchett), widowed with three young sons, makes a meager living using her “gift.” She’s an old-fashioned seer, giving readings for lost souls including troubled mechanic Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), prone to self-destruction, or meek Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), regularly beaten by her philandering husband Donnie (a terrifying and impressive Keanu Reeves).
Screenwriters Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) and Tom Epperson (One False Move) establish Annie as the link between two worlds. She’s very much part of this small town’s social climate, where everybody knows everyone else’s business, yet she’s also privy to its dark, hidden secrets. That’s why the police come knocking at her door when they’re stumped by the disappearance of a promiscuous socialite.
Director Raimi has made The Gift as a beautifully rendered, old-fashioned scary movie, using simple but highly effective shock tactics to pull the audience in. He’s especially good at portraying Annie’s ambivalence over seeing and feeling things she can’t fully understand, and getting a terrifying glimpse of her neighbors’ true faces.
There’s a dictum in comedy that no matter how dumb characters are, always play them at the height of their intelligence. That principle is proven brilliantly by O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where ineptitude is taken to new comic heights, and also comes in to play in The Gift. Both films focus on white Southerners who could easily be dismissed as crackers, hillbillies, rednecks and yahoos. The Coens and Sam Raimi opt to bypass these stereotypes, treating their characters as outsiders traveling their own roads who discover that it’s not the destination, but the journey, that really matters.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.