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Finding the Common Man in the Films of Joel & Ethan Coen (P. II)


The society of O Brother seems disrupted by the lack of money. Rules that would typically order the society and construct a system of moral ethics have given way to a world where, as Everett remarks, “everybody’s looking for answers.” For example, Pete’s cousin tries to turn him in for the reward money even though they are kin because “times are hard.” Tommy supposedly sells his soul to the devil in order to learn to play the guitar and make money. Also, Big Dan Teague becomes attracted to Everett and Delmar over the mere sound of a dollar bill. In this world, absurdity seems to know no bounds when money is involved: George Nelson, who gladly robs banks to bolster his own personal fortune during these tough times, even goes as far as to shoot cows on sight while being pursued by the cops.

Emerged in the chaotic world around them, the protagonists – especially Everett – seem completely clueless and ignorant. Everett believes he is “endowed with the gift of gab” and the only one of the three with the “capacity for abstract thought.” He constantly runs his mouth, trying to create grand philosophical statements and rationalize all situations, but as with most of the Coen brothers’ protagonists, only finds himself running senseless repetition. When cornered by the law, the only statement he can sputter is “damn, we’re in a tight spot,” repeated over and over. Delmar is also foolish enough to believe Pete becomes turned into a toad after their encounter with the sirens.

“Bible salesman” Big Dan Teague easily dupes Everett, beating him and taking all his money. Because Big Dan is also “endowed” with the gift of gab, Everett sees him as his friend; he cannot possibly understand why a man of similar standing would take advantage of him. Everett is filled with delusions of grandeur, but as an individual he constantly fails at realizing what happens around him; he calls himself an “astute observer of the human scene” mere seconds before Teague attacks him with a tree branch. Teague encapsulates a sector of the society, for he is a con man willing to do anything for the money. While Everett sees many of the characters in the film as people to be taken advantage of, such as the blind radio DJ, Big Dan manages to get the better of him, catching him off guard through his eloquence. If language is, as it has been throughout the Coens’ films, a parameter of cultural identification, then Big Dan manages to infiltrate the culture to take advantage of it, echoing the Coens’ position as filmmakers. He swoops in to physically attack Everett and Delmar, just as Gaear and Carl did in Fargo, and to rob them of their money for his own greedy gain. He even screams “it’s all about the money, boys,” as he vicious beats Delmar.

In O Brother, Where Art Thou? the culture has obviously become divided. The values and identity seem split apart, perhaps signified even more by the heated gubernatorial election currently in progress. The film suggests that music creates identity. After the boys sing “Man of Constant Sorrow” as The Soggy Bottom Boys, initially done to take advantage of the blind radio DJ’s money, the song becomes a hit and begins to tie the split community back together. Music in the film has an almost seductive power; the sirens take advantage of the trio by singing them a lullaby. This power manifests itself most potently in “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and at the climax of the film the song is performed as Pappy O’Daniel takes control of the election and pardons Everett and his companions for their crimes. Later, the lawman hunting the boys does not believe that they are pardoned because he “doesn’t have a radio” – he could not hear the music unite the divide.

The redemptive and universal power of music also reveals a kind of cultural identity: all the music featured in O Brother derives from blue grass music of the time period. “Man of Constant Sorrow,” in this sense, creates a community identity absent from throughout the film. Everett, who seems out of touch with the culture around him, ironically becomes one of the forces capable of uniting this disparate culture. In O Brother, as in The Big Lebowski, the common man again comes out as victor by maintaining a system of principles that slowly translates across an absurd and out of touch community.

If in The Big Lebowski the bums do end up winning, exposing the empty snobbery of the upper class while retaining a sense of community identity, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) refutes this notion almost entirely, exposing the protagonist – and, by proxy, the common man – as weak and incompetent, doomed to fail. Ed Crane, the man of the title, works at a barbershop, even though he does not consider himself a barber; he “married into it.” Unlike The Dude or Everett, who crowded their respective films with language and personality, Ed seems quiet and removed from his world. If the common man of The Big Lebowski sought to maintain a community identity, the common man here insists on removing himself. Ed does not like to talk, nor does he like to entertain. He “just cuts the hair.” In this way, Ed tries to mold himself into his class. The other common man of the film, Ed’s brother-in-law and one of the owners of the barbershop, Frank Raffo, seems almost the opposite. Frank talks about everything, but as Ed points out, “if you’re eleven or twelve, Frank’s got an interesting point of view.” Much as Everett flaunts his vocabulary without being constructive, Frank sees a need to fill all gaps with words. He comes from a common family; at a wedding he gets drunk, rides on the back of a pig, and wins the blueberry pie eating contest. Frank seems to represent the Coens’ former notion of the common man established in their earlier films: a simple person designed to fit into his place, teetering on the edge of stupidity.

Though Ed is associated with this culture via his marriage, he seems disgusted by his world. He hates his job, and knows his wife is cheating on him with her boss. Ed seems desperate to escape his social status, playing right into the hands of a con man and losing ten thousand dollars. Like The Big Lebowski before it, The Man Who Wasn’t There also participates in an underlying commentary on social hierarchy. When Ed’s wife, Doris, is accused of murder, Ed’s lawyer flatly tells him, “I’m an attorney, you’re a barber. You don’t know anything.” As Ed later says, via voiceover, “I was a ghost. No one saw me and I didn’t see them. I was the barber.” Ed’s position in this world, behind the heads of those whose hair he cuts, makes him invisible.

Whereas the protagonists of the Coens’ earlier films triumph because of their hidden versatility or their principles, Ed has none. When he goes on trial for a murder he did not commit, Ed talks about how his lawyer tried to present him to the jury: “He told them to look at me, look at me close. The closer they looked, the less sense it would make. I wasn’t the kind of guy to kill a guy. I was just the barber, for Christ’s sake. I was just like them: an ordinary man living in a world that had no place for me, yeah…but not guilty of murder. He said I was modern man, and if they voted to convict me, well, they’d be putting the noose around themselves. He told them not to look at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts. And then he said the facts had no meaning.”

Ed ultimately fails, and is sentenced to die at the electric chair. His last words beg for language, for the ability to tell his wife “all those things they don’t have words for here.” Though unable to conjure eloquence in his life, Ed pleads for it in death, as if to die would be to possibly succeed at finding his voice. Though the film’s title applies to not only one but two murders during the course of the film, it also applies to Ed’s position as the common man. He is, compared to the protagonists of other films, not there, a