Song of the Day #4,549: ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ – Harry McClintock

Continuing my countdown of every Coen Brothers movie…

#12. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
(up three spots from previous ranking)

This is the Coen Brothers movie I was most looking forward to revisiting, because I’m pretty sure I’d seen it only once before. As with all Coen movies, additional viewings are required, and this one shot way up in my estimation the second(?) time around.

This might be the brothers’ most beautiful film, with Roger Deakins’ creamy black-and-white photography making every shot worthy of framing. It’s also one of their most tonally consistent, never dropping the poker face of its noir classicism.

The Man Who Wasn’t There packs an emotional wallop, despite focusing on a man who seems immune to emotion. Billy Bob Thornton’s stone-faced performance and deadpan narration mask a well of feelings he can’t find a way to express.

The film features some of the Coens’ most provocative and thoughtful writing, as in this beautiful closing narration:

Well, it’s like pulling away from the maze. While you’re in the maze you go through willy-nilly, turning where you think you have to turn, banging into dead ends, one thing after another. But get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns, why, they’re the shape of your life. It’s hard to explain but seeing it whole gives you some peace.

#11. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
(up one spot from previous ranking)

The problem with these revisits and rankings is I’m constantly second guessing myself. Every time I start a write-up, I’m convinced I’ve ranked the film in question about five slots too low. But then I look at what else is on the list and realize I’ve made these calls for a reason.

Still, it feels wrong somehow to have O Brother, Where Art Thou? just outside of the top ten. This is such a gloriously inventive and enjoyable movie.

Based (quite loosely) on Homer’s Odyssey, which neither Coen Brother had read, the film follows a trio of escaped chain gang prisoners across the Depression-era South. George Clooney is a delight in his first dim-bulb role for the Coens, and Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro round out the gang.

The movie is best known for its Grammy-winning soundtrack, produced by T Bone Burnett and featuring classic folk and bluegrass tunes. The film’s centerpiece song is the escaped cons’ rendition of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ which they perform as The Soggy Bottom Boys to make a few bucks on the road. Their recording of that song makes for a classic Coen scene.

A year before Roger Deakins wowed us with the black-and-white cinematography of The Man Who Wasn’t There, he used digital color correction to render this film in dust-bowl sepia tones. That Deakins hasn’t won an Oscar for his work with the Coen Brothers is a true shame.

O Brother has a charming innocence you don’t find in many Coen Brothers films, and it features one of their few happy endings. A delight.

3 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,549: ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ – Harry McClintock

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    I don’t have much recollection of The Man Who Wasn’t There, but I certainly remember O Brother, which is one my favorites from the Coen Brothers.

  2. Peg says:

    I don’t recall the Man who wasn’t there at all. But I love Oh Brother! That’s one I need to see again ❤️

  3. Amy says:

    I never saw The Man Who Wasn’t There, which is rather shocking, since I, too, count the Coen brothers as my fave filmmakers. I agree completely that O Brother is a delight from start to finish, and I love how John Goodman shows up as “Cyclops.”

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