“It’s a Small World, Spiritually Speaking”: Christianity, Music, and Myth in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

O Muse! Sing in me, and through me tell the story

O Brother Where Art Thou is a clever adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, one which skillfully alters and modernizes the Greek epic. These changes remove the perceived educational high ground associated with Homer’s work, allowing the film to comment on both myth and the hypocritical nature of Christianity in the early 20th century, and beyond. O Brother thus positions Homer’s work as a steppingstone toward broader theological discussions, essentially mixing the dilemmas Odysseus faces with those found in the 1930’s.

Released in 2000 by the critically acclaimed director duo behind Fargo and The Big Lebowski, O Brother tells the story of Ulysses Everett McGill and his two compatriots after they escape from prison. During their quest for Everett’s treasure, the men meet many strange people before eventually returning home, events which mirror the Homeric return in Odyssey.

The Coen Brothers do an excellent job of inserting and transforming the familiar characters and events of the Odyssey. What makes this transformation especially noteworthy is its use of the depression era, as the film is set in the deep South during the 30’s. This landscape is crucial to the film’s commentary on religion and myth, as the events are set in a distant yet familiar environment, one which is not so removed from living memory. As a result, the film’s setting acts as a mediator between Homer’s antiquity and contemporary modernity, as it is neither then nor now, but somewhere between. This additionally means that the American South faces its own form of crossroads in the film. Its unique temporal location, caught between past and present, allows the imagery of these two environments to fuse.

This removed yet familiar environment matches the way the Coen Brother’s interpret Homer’s story. The Coen’s claim that they have never read Homer’s Odyssey, and instead based their adaptation on general cultural knowledge associated with Homer. As a result, you do not need a classical education in order to understand the film, as it is equally an adaptation and an independent narrative.

That Old Timey Song

The film is most famous for its incredible soundtrack. In fact, the film uses music to revisit the oral traditions of storytelling, particularly the kind described in Homer’s text. Its songs lament and praise God while also describing vivid stories of death and love. For example, the song “In the Jailhouse Now” tells a story about judgement and flawed human nature, themes which are prevalent in lyrical Greek epics like Homer’s. Likewise, as many of the songs are a response to the Great Depression, the singers become a version of Homer’s chorus, lamenting and crying out.

The characters in the film use gospel music to market hope for political and commercial gain. This means that they use music to manipulate the word of God. As such, each song functions like an alluring Siren’s song. We see them used in campaigns, work camps, worship, and other commodified spaces, and each situation uses music to draw people in. They are lured towards the music, and they make it louder by singing along. For example, the baptism scene directly relates to the mindless Lotus Eaters of Homer’s Book 9, as the loud chorus drives Everett’s companions into a zealous and unthinking state. Similar to Odysseus’ men, who “browsing on that native bloom, [became] forgetful of their homeland,” (Homer 678-679) the baptized disciples try to forget their sinful past.

However, music is also a positive thing in the film, as the Soggy Bottom Boy’s performance incites political reform and integration. This demonstrates that songs are still a form of cultural manipulation, but they can be used for different purposes.

Circles and Cyclopes

O Brother similarly establishes a realm of Christian contradiction by framing men of God as Homer’s monsters. As an example, Big Dan is a version of the Cyclops from Homer’s Book 9. This one-eyed bible salesmen makes a profit off the poor and faithful. This means that like the Cyclops in Homer’s work, Big Dan is a dangerous shepherd. The camera work continues this comparison by emphasizing that Big Dan is giant-like and threatening. It exaggerates his huge personality through low shots, which position us underneath the monster. Although Big Dan does not eat people, he does squish a toad, which becomes a reference to his monstrous appetite and brutality.

It is not surprising that Big Dan is later revealed to be a member of the heinous KKK, as like this group, he is hypocritical, violent, racist, and makes money through a self-serving interpretation of Christianity. What is interesting is that according to Janice Siegel, in her discussion on Homer and the Coen’s work , “both the Cyclops and the Klan derive their name from the same Greek word, Kuklos, meaning ‘circle.’” (232). This circle identifies both KKK (on their logo) and Cyclops Big Dan, while also signaling their obsession for nostalgia and a cycle of ignorance. Instead of moving forward with reform, both the KKK and Big Dan are stuck circling in a Charybdis-like fashion around an idealized yet manipulated idea of past Christianity. Each of these Christian monsters are the result of a religious fever, the kind of nostalgia which creates a backward, blind, and destructive space.

Furthermore, the film personifies this fixation with the past by naming the KKK leader Homer. I think this is the greatest commentary the film makes about the Homeric epic, as the KKK is so focused on looking backwards instead of forward that they are led by a man named Homer. This move also suggests that Homer’s role in modern society is less as a great author and more as a symbol for violent misreading. Homer the author becomes a symbol for a distant and idealized past, the beginning of democracy and literature, ect. But, Homer’s role as a racist politician in O Brother suggests that this nostalgic perspective is ultimately destructive and backwards. This means that the monsters in the film want things to stay the same, to circle around reform and avoid change. In other words, to just repeat the events from old stories, like Homer’s, rather than inventing new kinds.  

O Death

The characters in O Brother frequently switch between sinner and saint, as they commit sins, are baptized and forgiven, and then commit additional sins. This is the result of the film’s use of God(s). Although God is absentee in the film, the Devil makes several appearances as the Sheriff. This marks a huge shift from Homer’s work, where Gods are everywhere, and some intrude on the narrative as actual characters. The Coen’s world is an uncertain paradigm where many are struggling with the apparent abandonment of God, or the Great Depression.

While God is notably absent, the Devil takes a pivotal role in the film as a terrifying and ceaseless lawman. Although he represents two Gods from Homers’ text, Poseidon and Hades, the Devil in O Brother is all too human. He is not some distant or all-knowing entity; he is the familiar and violent law man we continue to see today. Even the Sheriff’s bloodhound represents a history of extreme racial violence. This means that he presents both mythic and real simultaneously. As Poseidon, the Sheriff stalks the main characters and is a constant threat. As Hades, he represents death and tracks down escaped souls with Cerberus. As a Sheriff, he represents a real-world antagonist, similar to the film’s depiction of the KKK and the corrupt political system. By suggesting that the Sheriff is both mythic and real, the film implies that the legal system in the States is stuck with the same violent figure, one who passes from Homer’s era and into our contemporary world.

Similarly, while God is not included in the film, his voice and will potentially make an appearance, albeit an ambiguous kind. As with the Odyssey, Everett is given a prophecy, but unlike Homer’s hero, he is skeptical of it. Even when he and his companions are miraculously saved by a flood which washes away their problems, Everett automatically labels it as a coincidence. This scene epitomizes the film’s discussion about religion and individuality. Those who mindlessly follow the old-fashioned words of false preachers will never find God. But, those who come to a religious conclusions on their own, if only momentarily, will be rewarded.

Although there is a sense of implied mysticism to the film, this absentee God symbolizes the modern shift towards individualism and ambiguity, leaving the events of the film open to interpretation.

Works Cited

Sigel, Janice. “The Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Homer’s Odyssey.” Mouseion: Journal of the Classical Association of Canada. 7.3. (2007): 213-245. Web. http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/article/247584/pdf

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