While some films fade in significance with time or begin to feel outdated after 20 years, others are more heralds for where the medium is heading. For these rare few, then, two decades of age barely registers at all. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of these ageless films. Its story is about as old as narratives can be, its period trappings and folkloric infusions are already outside of time and its digital photography—very much on the cutting edge in 2000—is now de rigueur in the industry.

O Brother is a delightful Coens romp through Greek mythology, the Depression-era South and the human psyche. It traces the escape of three convicts—Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson)—in 1937 Mississippi who must retrieve a buried treasure from Everett’s bank-robbing days before it gets buried by the reservoir formed by a newly-dammed river. Everett is the character’s middle name and his actual name is Ulysses, so that should indicate the labyrinthine and legendary twists that the plot is going to take. The misanthropic Coen brothers make the film into a satire and weave the Greek mythology right into Southern mythology, so that Cyclops and the governor rub elbows at a Klan rally (what is more fanciful and mythic than white supremacy?). And take it from someone who grew up visiting dam-forged reservoirs across the South: far-fetched tall tales of lost treasure buried under the waters are as common as lies about lunker-sized fish supposedly seen swimming in those lakes.

But O Brother’s legacy resides more in its soundtrack and its cinematography. The film nearly functions as a musical, even though most of the characters never sing a word; the music is just that central to the action. There are the singing Sirens who seduce the three protagonists and the chanting evangelicals who convince Pete and Delmar to be baptized, but there is also, of course, the Grammy-winning single “Man of Constant Sorrow,” sung by the trio along with a guitarist. In the plot of the film, the song becomes their ultimate salvation, winning them a pardon and netting them a fortune. For the way O Brother is remembered today, that song and the rest of the soundtrack is central; it is the way most viewers will remember the film.

Roger Deakins was the Director of Photography for O Brother in a year when digital truly began to take over from film as the dominant medium for the movies. What Deakins did with O Brother, color correcting the digital shots to give the whole movie an orange/sepia tone that evokes both an autumn hillside and the Hollywood films of the ‘30s (and, of course, in true Coens fashion, the title O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an homage to Preston Sturges), was a harbinger for the digitization of cinema. At the time, it was jaw-dropping; today, it seems subtle and understated, as films have just gotten more garish and the digital productions too over-done.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? looked like nostalgia transcribed to a cinema screen back in 2000, with its sepia-washed landscapes, Homeric allusions and period setting. Today, it still looks like nostalgia, but more for the days when Hollywood still produced films for audiences other than 15-year-old boys, films that used digital effects sparingly rather than featuring actors grimacing at green-screens-become-supervillains. O Brother, those were the days.

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