O Brother Where Art Thou follows the adventures of Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) as they journey across depression era Mississippi to find a stash of money that Ulysses has supposedly hidden from the robbery that landed him in prison. The story very closely mirrors that of Homer’s Odyssey in regards to the challenges and triumphs faced. Ulysses is the main character, and though he tells his companions they are looking for treasure, he is really seeking his wife (Holly Hunter) back home, who is dangerously close to falling into the arms of another man. The gang faces a variety of challenges and obstacles as they navigate the journey to their end goal.
This fantastic story written by the Coen brothers features plenty of excellent acting and interesting camera work, but its strength is its story, and the structure it adheres to, that makes every part of it — the quest, the struggles, and the triumph — very endearing. Here, I have laid out the movies plot and how it aligns with Joseph Cambell’s original blueprint for the hero’s journey. The Coens’ sticking to this format reinforces the fact that; in regards to good storytelling, if it isn’t broken, one need not fix it.
Section One – Introduction to setting, Character and Conflict
Stage One — The Ordinary World: Ulysses’ ordinary world consists of his life as a lawyer with his wife Penny and his little girls. It is peaceful, and free of conflict. His imprisonment jeopardizes this however, and he decides he must take action when he discovers that his Penny is close to becoming married to a suitor. He leaves his post on a prison chain gang, and sets out to find her and win her back.
Stage Two — The Call To Adventure: The call for Ulysses is a letter from Penny that details her plans to get married to the despicable Vernon T. Waldrip. They are divorced, and he has already “lost her” in a sense, but he sees this as the last straw. He acts on feelings that have bult over time, and convinces the men he is chained to to escape with him so he can stop the marriage.
Stage Three — Refusing the Call: Ulysses refuses the call for some time after he is rebuked by Penny. He sees his daughters and his wife, and notices that they have changed their names. What’s more he sees his wife with Vernon, who she considers to be “bona fide”, contrasting with Ulysses status as a felon. He attacks Vernon and is soundly beaten, and kicked out of the building. He goes with Delmar to a picture show and laments the “unfaithfulness of women”. To top this off their friend Pete enters the theater, declaring that there is an ambush waiting for them at their destination, and that they should abandon their quest. All three men fully embrace their hopelessness.
Stage Four — Meeting With The Mentor: Just after the men escape, they hitch a ride with an old blind man on a handcart. He predicts that they will find treasure, but not necessarily the treasure they are looking for. This is a vague statement, but at the time, it affirms the men in their quest for riches. and spurs them on. Ulysses asserts that being blind the man has enhanced senses, thus giving him the power of precognition. At this point in the movie they are completely committed to their goal.
Stage Five — Crossing the First Threshold: This happens fairly early in the movie. the men escape at the very beginning of the film, running away from the chain gang. this is the very first point of no return. They have broken the law by escaping, which would add another 50 years to their current sentences. Accordingly, there is no possible way for them to go back, they can only rush to escape.
Section Two – Action, Climax, Triumph
Stage Six — Tests, Allies, and Enemies: With all of its resemblance to a Greek Epic, there are a great many of these in this film. The men encounter three “sirens”, a deliberate to Homer. They are enchanted, and drugged by the women, to the point of unconsciousness. This leads to the disappearance of Pete. The band is also plagued by the deceitful Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) who pretends to be a bible salesman, but brutally assaults the men, and steals their belongings. Finally, they encounter a group of KKK members, who besiege them, but are eventually defeated as the adventurers escape.
Stage Seven — Approach to the Inmost Cave: The approach to the innermost cave manifests itself in the moment where Ulysses finally wins back Penny’s heart but finds that she will not get married to him again unless she has her original wedding ring, which is far away in a cabin in the woods. It is a nearly impossible task to find the ring given its distance, and the likelihood that it actually is where she remembers it being, but since Ulysses loves her, and does indeed want to marry her, he realizes that he has no choice but to undergo the difficult task.
Stage Eight — The Ordeal: When Ulysses and the gang arrive at the cabin, they find the law waiting for them, led by Sheriff Cooley. Their graves have been dug already, and they are threatened at gunpoint, forced towards a trio of nooses. It is their time to die, justice has found them at last. The men pray — Ulysses especially fervently – while their enemies look on with evil intent, preparing to kill them.
Stage Nine — The Reward: Suddenly, a deluge of water courses through the forest, throwing everyone into disarray, setting everything adrift, and completely flooding the area. The men escape, naturally, and the enemy is vanquished. Even though Ulysses suggests that the government is flooding the valley to install hydroelectric power, this event appears as a divine intervention as a result of the men’s faith. In other words their faith was rewarded by a lifesaving act.
Stage Ten — The Road Back: As the men float along in the aftermath of the flood, one of Ulysses companions is floating on a desk, which, happens to be the place where Penny said her ring might be. Ulysses finds a ring in the desk. He is wholly triumphant, his enemies have been vanquished, and he has the object that he sought after in the first place.
Stage Eleven — Resurrection: Ulysses undergoes development when he realizes the immorality of his tricking Pete and Delmar into joining him. At this point, he becomes a more conscious and less selfish person. He is still motivated by the prospect of being with his wife again, but he is no longer willing to pursue this goal at the expense of his friends. When his friend Tommy is captured by the KKK for example, Ulysses and his two other companions impersonate Klan members in order to rescue him, when it would be much easier, and safer to just escape.
Stage Twelve — Return With the Elixir: The return with the Elixir is a peculiar thing here, because, as it turns out, the ring Ulysses found did not belong to Penny. Technically, he failed to achieve his goal. However, his obtaining this ring shows Penny his devotion to her, and that he truly cares, not just about himself. This is the fortune that he truly finds, friendship and familial unity. In this way, the ring serves its purpose as an elixir because it unites Ulysses with his family again.
Secondly, the Coen’s keep their characters true to traditional hero’s journey archetypes, which add to the relatability of the people involved in the plot.
The Hero: Ulysses is the clear hero of this story. His main goal is to find his family, regain his role as the “paterfamilias” or head of the family, and to rid it of Vernon. He acts as a leader of a group, but in a way, he is also acting alone, because his goals are wildly different from those of his companions.
The Mentor: The Blind man driving a handcart is the mentor in this story. He has a fairly uninvolved role in the story, but his actions overshadow the entire narrative. He causes the men to be motivated towards their goal, which carries the story forward, and his words act as foreshadowing because in the end, Ulysses does indeed find an unexpected fortune; his family.
The Threshold Guardians: Ulysses and company encounter a variety of diverse threats throughout the journey. There are the sirens, who entice with a seductive, but dangerous energy. There is Dan Teague, who tricks the men, beats them, and later exposes them as imposters when they sneak into a cross burning ceremony to free a friend. Throughout the journey, Dan Teague is there, hindering the heroes’ progress. Finally, the most formidable Guardian, Sheriff Cooley, will stop at nothing short of killing his pursues. Not only does he hinder progress, but he also forces it to happen, as he is ever present on the journey, just on the heels of the runaways.
The Herald: In many ways, Ulysses is the herald for the group. For a good part of the story, he has an ulterior motive in mind, and so he announces changes that need to be made in the groups agenda so that they can get where he needs them to. Also, Penny is a herald in a way, because she assigns the final task to Ulysses, and motivates him with prospects of their relationship being rekindled.
The Shape Shifters: The adventurers uncover several of these throughout their quest. The first, is Pete’s cousin, who provides assistance, and shelter, but then reveals his location to the police, selling him out. Also, Dan Teague is a sort of shapeshifter, because he pretends to be an innocent bible salesman that wants to help Delmar and Ulysses get rich, but then proceeds to violently beat them.
The Shadow: There are few shadows in this film. There is one very effective use of this device however. When the gang hitches a ride with George Nelson, AKA “Babyface” they see an example of criminal ambition running unbridled. Though the men do not necessarily object, they are visibly unsettled by his violence towards police, his impulsive heisting, and his insane tactics, such as strapping dynamite to himself. It is never explicitly declared, but the men on the run seem to resolve to be as little like Nelson as possible.
The Trickster: Ulysses with his clever plans, is the heroic trickster. He tricks his own friends to get them to follow him on a quest. Tricks a record producer to get money from a song they record, and tricks a man who gives them a ride into leaving his car unattended so that he can steal it.
Often praised for their inventive storytelling, the Coen Brothers make a point with this film to follow closely along the rails of storys millenia before its time. In doing this, they imbue O Brother Where Art Thou? with a certain timelessness, and a sense of scale that is much larger than the transpiring events warrant. A period tale, and an enduring American Odyssey, this film is some of the Coens’ best work.