Metanarrative and Redemption in Film: O Brother Where Art Thou?
Nick Rynerson is a Christian and a music and film lover. He blogs at Gospel Community Culture and writes a weekly column on Country music for Christ and Pop Culture. Nick is a part of Charis Community Church in Normal, Illinois. His interests include taking his beautiful fiancé on dates, playing the mandolin, and reading. Twitter: @Nick_Rynerson
O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the most influential film that I watched growing up. It just sort of made sense to me. Maybe it was the sepia-tinted landscape, the old-timey music, or the dry and witty dialogue that first hooked me, but since then (I think I was 12 when I first saw it), for innumerable reasons, it has sucked me back in.
When I became a Christian, O Brother took on another level of spiritual significance. While it is by no means a “Christian film” (nor am I sure there is such a thing), the theological and deeply human truths of the film are resounding and beautifully packaged. And after dozens of viewings, every time I still come away with a whole new appreciation for the film.
Set in the Mississippi Delta during the mid 1930s (an amazing time and place culturally and musically), the story centers on three unlikely conspirators breaking off of the chain gang. While loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey (although the Coen brothers claim to have never actually read it…), the story takes the aggressive Pete, the simple yet kindhearted Delmar, and the wanna-be bourgeois fast-talker Everett through the Deep South in search of Everett’s “treasure.” Along the way, they run into a Delta Blues singer who supposedly sold his soul to the devil, a traveling, one-eyed Bible salesmen, “Babyface” Nelson, and the governor of Mississippi.
The film paints the landscape in an idyllic and beautiful yet simple light (which probably explains why I think of the South in the 1930s like Owen Wilson thinks of Paris in the 1920s in Midnight in Paris, but that is another blog for a another time). The landscape lends to the story’s progression by being a moral constant: there is very little ambiguity in what is good and what is evil. It is Eden-esque in the sense that the land seems to be uncorrupted. The joyful bluegrass spirituals and old time folk lend themselves to this notion. The idea of a simpler time and clearly defined right and wrong evoke a longing for a time past, but the people themselves are a different story…
From the start of the film, our trio of heroes needs to be redeemed. Everett, Delmar, and Pete are running toward a new life and away from their old life in bondage, searching for a treasure that will absolve their former sins.
Take, for instance, the baptisms of Delmar and Pete. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Pete and Delmar see a congregation going down to the river to baptize their people and jump into the water with them. For them, it’s an absolution of the guilt that they had been wrestling with. And although it is met with dry, pessimistic scorn from Everett (the one in the group “capable of abstract thought”) and lends itself to a little jesting (“even if it did put you square with the Lord, the state of Mississippi is a little more hard nosed”), this freedom visibly tints the demeanor of these two characters for the rest of the film. In the process of the film (and in Scripture), the individual salvations are only a part of the great salvation process (2 Cor. 5:19; Rev. 21:5a) that spans the duration of the story.
Much like the story of redemption, O Brother starts with the words of a prophet (Gen. 3:15) and ends with a (literal and figurative) washing away of Satan and sin in fulfillment of a strikingly biblical narrative. While the characters do not represent that pinnacle of morality, it is their faith that carries them from desolation to treasure. Like the crooks, thieves, adulterers, and prisoners of Scripture that are redeemed despite their immoral witlessness, Pete, Delmar, and Everett are pardoned and rescued almost in spite of themselves. Actually, completely in spite of themselves.
One reason why I can always (always) come back to O Brother, Where Art Thou? is because of the triumphant hope that I know will somehow succeed despite the dire straits the characters are in: from seconds away from being lynched to almost being burned alive in a barn to being turned into a toad! I had that perspective in my everyday life. O Brother gets its power from the reality of the restoration it allegorically captures, and Scripture has promised a complete restoration (1 Thess. 4:16-17), yet I treat my everyday stressors like the world is collapsing! Films like this give us a bird’s eye view of what is to come, specifically, hardships, peril, heartache, drudgery, and then finally, glory.
While the Coen brothers may not have explicitly known that they were constructing a portrait of Christian salvation, they were well aware of the human longing for redemption. This is why art (especially art made by non-Christians) is so important. O Brother, Where Art Thou? can be a great reminder of who you are and where you are going.
I am thankful for the common grace of the Coen brothers and particularly this film. As a film enthusiast, I have seen a whole lot of movies, and I can confidently say that none of them tells me so well “you have been justified by faith alone; yeah, it is going to be a hard road, but there is hope at the end. Just hold on.”