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Southern Harmony: The Complex and Fulfilling Theology of O Brother, Where Art Thou

Catholics have plenty to learn from Protestants.

Such a statement can go in many directions. We live in an age in which the Pope has called for Eucharistic reform, John Paul II’s New Evangelization treks along with a new age of young and devout Catholics, and Christians of every denomination deal with increasing polarization, polemics, and isolation from larger communities. Many devout Catholics find themselves frustrated with what they perceive (and often rightfully so) as lackluster theology arising in Protestant circles. But then many Protestants are thirsting for something beyond that lackluster theology, and want something more. And in Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), all of the characters- whether they recognize it or not- thirst for something beyond lackluster theology and a hopeless, constant trek toward…something. So in particular, one might say that Catholics have plenty to learn from Ulysses Everett McGill, and from his troubled journey to conversion. 

Given its setting is in northern Mississippi, almost all of the characters are nominally Protestant. Ulysses, played by George Clooney, is one notable exception. No one who has seen Clooney in other movies or in ER will be surprised by his character. Suave, loquacious, something of a rebel, usually a non-believer, and hiding underneath a very gruff exterior a big and vulnerable heart, Ulysses Everett McGill is not that much different from ER’s Doug Ross.

Yet all of these qualities haunt Ulysses, as the hill country of rural Mississippi provides a haunting and ripe atmosphere for conversion. Just as he is running from what is most likely Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentary) with his two hapless buddies, so also he is running from conversion-both in his family life and his faith life. 

Early in the movie, the far more naive and happy-go-lucky Delmar, played charmingly by Tim Blake Nelson, rushes into a mass baptism by a river and allows the minister standing in the water to baptize him. Even as Delmar’s understanding of baptism is simplistic at best, when he joyfully proclaims that all of his sins are washed away and therefore his salvation is assured, his genuine happiness over his conversion brings the grumbling and dour Pete, played by John Turturro, to also get baptized. Ulysses taunts both of them for what he believes is “superstition”, and touts the supremacy of “science and reason”, not realizing that his lack of faith is one of the many obstacles which keeps him from the fulfillment he seeks.

No conversation on faith and conversion in the context of O Brother, Where Art Thou is complete without a mention of the Grammy-award-winning soundtrack, a love letter to Delta blues and Appalachian folk music. Much of the music of the movie beautifully underlines this struggle between faith and selfishness, the interpersonal tug-of-war that underlies Ulysses’s heart. “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”, played by Chris Thomas King’s Tommy Johnson during a brief respite from the quartet’s travels, illuminates the desires of the four men as they hope to find a “treasure” that Ulysses supposedly has buried. Pete longs for status and wealth, Delmar longs for land and an honest living, and Tommy longs to be able to play music. Ulysses, on the other hand, refuses to discuss what his heart desires. 

Soon after, “I’ll Fly Away” and “Go to Sleep Little Baby” as they are performed side-by-side by bluegrass and country stars Gillian Welch, Allison Krauss, and Emmylou Harris, highlight the boys’ collective desire for freedom, both from earthly and spiritual troubles, while also underscoring the scorching guilt Ulysses feels over losing his wife to another man. The Soggy Bottom Boys, sans Tommy, find themselves beset by three women, and as they succumb to their base desires, so they also lose their companionship and their way toward their real desires. 

And of course, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, the movie’s leading track performed with glory by Dan Tyminski of bluegrass powerhouse Union Station, puts the real desire of Ulysses’s heart on full display. As George Clooney’s character unwittingly finds himself at his most naked and afraid, playing a song with his three friends to earn a little money to fuel their escape, we also learn later in the movie that his true desire is not the “treasure” he has buried away, but that of his family and of his identity.

But only near the end of the movie, after (spoiler alert) he is reunited with his wife and many daughters, do we get the song and the moment which highlights that conversion. “Lonesome Valley”, an old spiritual, reminds Ulysses that at the end of the day, as he fears that the sheriff chasing the boys is about to hang them for good, that he is alone with God and himself. He drops to his knees, looking to Heaven in a moment of earnest fear, and asks God to save him so he may see his wife and children. Only when he confesses the true longing of his heart, his vocation as a father and husband, does he finally receive his salvation, which comes in the form of the flood looming since the beginning of the movie, saving all four of the boys from certain death and bringing about the fulfillment of their journey. While Ulysses tries to play-off his moment of conversion as a one-time experience, the movie ends with him walking alongside his wife and children, comfortable and happy and free, as he has found that his treasure in Heaven was in front of him all along. 

In a movie and TV market oversaturated with Marvel movies, Disney remakes, and occasional original projects which are mostly stuffed into the realm of Hulu or Amazon Prime, directors often struggle with allowing viewers to contemplate serious emotions and complex themes while balancing the need to include some sort of comedy or action. Many Marvel movies, and quite a few modern cartoons, are egregious offenders, selling a particularly heinous brand of emotional insecurity mixed with a lack of maturity and vulnerability. O Brother, Where Art Thou is an example of a dying art, which allows the audience both to absorb the hilarious misadventures of The Soggy Bottom Boys and to ponder the eschatological and the salvation of a very slick, mouthy, hair-gel-obsessed non-believer. 

“Pondering” is the key word. Christ speaks in moments of contemplation, in moments of wandering and confusion, in the unspoken moments in which we do not allow ourselves to trust and fall. The humanity and the spirituality of our characters revolves around their ability to ponder, whether they do so around a campfire, while singing onstage after overtaking a political rally, or while standing together in that “lonesome valley”. In pondering, they find everything they want and need, because their pondering is fruitful and leads them to tying every loose end, both in their own hearts and in the wider scheme of the movie. Real-life Catholics and Protestants, especially in an American society which expects itself to have all of the answers, struggle mightily with this battle between holding on and letting go, which finds its microcosm in Ulysses Everett McGill. Perhaps in the “pondering” of this movie and of its characters we can find the answer, the Spirit which unites through both old music and new adherents. We find that discernment is the key, which clicks open the lock and lets us see that the only way to truly heal the Church is to look within and to seek the truest treasure of our hearts. 

And perhaps then we will all indeed meet, as Dan Tyminski sings, on God’s golden shore.    

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