City Paper – Film review, O Brother Where Art Thou? and All the Pretty Horses

From the January 5, 2001 issue of the Washington City Paper.

Road Movies

By Virginia Vitzthum

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Directed by Joel Coen

All the Pretty Horses

Directed by Billy Bob Thornton

All the Pretty Horses and O Brother, Where Art Thou? aim mythic: The Coen brothers spin The Odyssey through 1937 Mississippi, and Thornton puts Orpheus in 1949 Texas. Horses‘ John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) rides down into a hellish Mexico, where he passes the tests but loses the girl–and his sidekicks. Unlike the smirky Coens, Thornton is in dead earnest, but he can’t bring his story home either.

The O Brother credit “based on The Odyssey by Homer” got laughs at the screening, maybe because the Coens have been telling the press that they’ve never read the epic poem. Like Thornton, the Coens turn solitary quest into buddy picture, chaining two morons to their not-much-smarter hero. The film seems to have sprung from a stoned pitch: “It’s Odysseus, except he’s three bumbling chain-gang escapees in the redneck South!”

George Clooney’s Everett Ulysses McGill is a verbose dandy shackled to mouth-breathers Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson). He persuades them to escape–a week before their sentences end–with promises of buried treasure; he’s really headed for his wife, Penny (Holly Hunter), and their brood of daughters. The conceit lets viewers play spot-the-sirens and eye-the-Cyclops, but Homer’s stories resonate not at all with the Jim Crow setting or with any of the characters. The Coens’ mythology is movies, and Clooney is their pomaded, pencil-thin-mustachioed god. He’s ridiculously handsome, an improved Clark Gable the way Jakob Dylan is the hottie version of his dad.

But Clooney’s got movie-star acting range to go with his movie-star looks. He doesn’t stand a chance of transcending the Coens’ super-italicized, wisecracking schtick, which has dragged much better actors down. (Why, specifically, do Turturro and John Goodman keep signing up to be turned into grotesques?) Clooney’s rat-a-tat performance is a microcosm of the Coen oeuvre: visually dazzling but brittle, a fast-moving, clever surface stretched over an emotional void.

I held out some hope for O Brother because 1998’s The Big Lebowski seemed to be a breakthrough. Now I suspect that Lebowski’s uncharacteristic warmth should probably be credited to Jeff Bridges, because O Brother is as soulless as Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and the overpraised Fargo. With Tarantino laying low, the Coens are the kings of beautifully recorded sound and slapstick fury signifying nothing beyond source-dropping. O Brother alludes to Sullivan’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz, Bonnie and Clyde, and, oh, who cares? We know they’ve seen a lot of movies.

Nothing matters and nobody changes in this picaresque. The trio passes through a riverside baptism, a bank heist with BabyFace Nelson, Robert Johnson’s crossroads, and a Ku Klux Klan lynching party choreographed like a Busby Berkeley production number. It’s exhaustingly wacky without ever being funny. I’ve no problem with the tastelessness; I suspect Monty Python or Mel Brooks could have made the KKK set piece work.

Playing a lynching not for laughs, is, of course, a viable artistic choice, but O Brother‘s frantic shenanigans leave no room for sorrow, fear, or empathy. All I could feel was a distanced admiration for the golden light on the yellow fields, Clooney’s crinkly eyes, and the music. The soundtrack was assembled and its selections occasionally performed by T-Bone Burnett and Gillian Welch; blues, gospel, bluegrass, and old-timey tunes lift the movie throughout. Covers by Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Welch, and others intertwine gracefully with original Alan Lomax field recordings and a blessedly spare “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” sung by Chris Thomas King as the Robert Johnson figure.

The music is sensitively chosen and unpatronizing, but the film drags out every Southern-cracker stereotype. Pete and Delmar are, as Everett puts it, “dumber than a bag of hammers”; Holly Hunter plays the same wacko shrew she played in Raising Arizona; and almost everyone else is racist, ignorant, and corrupt. A few actors rise above here: Tim Blake Nelson teases some sweetness out of his Delmar, and Charles Durning makes a human being out of bilious Gov. Pappy O’Daniel. Somehow these two manage to dodge the contempt the Coens heap on their creations.

Billy Bob Thornton, on the other hand, loves his cowboys too much. A serious modern western has to face down the code of the gunslinger–it’s not that the good guy can’t shoot people, but he should at least have some issues. Though it was overpraised, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven did explore how killing changes a man, and it took us into a more grown-up world. Damon’s Cole faces the same struggles, but we’re never allowed to share his self-doubt. Some elder is always telling us what a good man he is.

At the start, Cole and his buddy Lacey Rawlins (Henry Thomas) just want to be cowboys. When Cole’s mother sells off the west Texas ranch on which he’s spent his entire life, the pals head for Mexico, where, Cole rhapsodizes, “the land ain’t sold off, cut up, and played out.” They meet up with teenage Jimmy Blevins (Lucas Black), also headed south and riding what might be a stolen horse. Rawlins warns against joining up, but Cole softens because he can see that the kid is hungry. When they ask Blevins why they should take him on, he answers, “because I’m an American!” Then they all gallop across the Rio Grande, horses and leather and water gleaming in the sun.

These opening scenes delight in the beauty of the desert and the gait of the horses, in small tests of loyalty and honor and shy male bonding. These are corny pleasures, but they’re straight from the acclaimed novel by Cormac McCarthy, which I also enjoyed until it got muy macho. (Both book and film stumble badly on the love story.) For its first two-thirds, the movie unfurls the journey in terse, economical scenes that echo McCarthy’s straightforward prose. The young men’s friendship is sketched in the sparest dialogue. (Cole and Rawlins pledge to each other, “I’ll stick.”) The bond is filled in visually, with a passed tequila bottle, a shared smile at Blevins’ bluster, matching limps after a long day of breaking horses. The young men’s unfussy sweetness combined with a boyish gung-ho attitude is appealing, drawing you into the adventure. Tentative, complaining Rawlins and swaggering Blevins are more likable than Cole, partly because Cole’s so Galahad-pure and partly because the former child stars are more expressive than the lumpy Damon.

Cole and Rawlins start working for rich rancher Rocha y Villarael (Ruben Blades, as the only Mexican who’s never a cliche). Cole falls in love with Rocha’s daughter Alejandra (Penelope Cruz) when he sees her on a horse that matches her hair. When Rocha finds out that Cole’s schtupping his daughter, he turns the two Americans over to the Mexican police for a crime they did not commit–Blevins’ horse thieving.

The boys are thrown into a straw-covered cell, tortured, beaten, and interrogated. Cliches sneak in–the captain hisses, “We make the truth here”–but these are still powerful scenes. The light bleaches and darkens as Cole drifts in and out of consciousness, talking to the dead and trying to understand the jailers’ vagaries. Cole and Rawlins are then sent to a large prison, where Cole is attacked in some arcane lunchroom ritual. He kills his attacker with a shocking flourish of brutality, and it looks as if the character might finally bust out of his shining armor.

Instead, the film falls apart. Horses was trimmed almost in half from four hours, and the cuts show most in the movie’s last third. Thornton had no problem getting his young Orpheus down to hell, but the return feels perfunctory, partly because Cole seems unchanged. In a scene I don’t remember from the novel, he’s busted in Texas on suspicion of stealing horses and tells his story in court. The kindly old judge (Bruce Dern!) is so moved by his tale, he asks to see the scars where Cole was shot; he then pronounces him free to go and “a good man.” The clumsy, unbelievable sequence seems designed only to reassure the audience that Cole’s no killer and to contrast American justice with the bad Mexican kind. There’s a lunkheaded, compassionate conservatism to Horses’ arc. Experience doesn’t shape the innocent; it’s simply erased. Cole washes the betrayal and relativism of Mexico off in the river, ending up in Texas the same as he started.