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Written and directed by The Coen Brothers, three Depression-era Mississippi prison fugitives go on a rollicking adventure in an attempt to reach the money buried by one of them in his back yard. They have only a short time to do this, though, as the backyard in question is in an area slated to be flooded by the damming activities of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The story is (very) loosely based on Homer's The Odyssey, following Ulysses Everett McGill, Delmar O'Donnell and Pete as they meet, among others, a blind prophet, sirens, the Cyclops and a gifted guitar player who "sold his soul to the devil". Also during their journey, they record a hit song, rob a bank with George "Baby Face" Nelson, encounter the KKK, and inadvertently get mixed up in the state gubernatorial election. It was noted for the tremendous success of its soundtrack, most of which was recorded by Alison Krauss & Union Station (Dan Tyminski provided Everett's singing voice) and other country-bluegrass acts.
- Agent Scully: Despite being pursued by Satan, meeting a prophet, being seduced by sirens, and being apparently saved from execution by divine intervention, Everett still insists that there is a reasonable explanation for everything. At least it's Lampshaded.
- And by the end, he doesn't really seem sure of himself any more.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "These boys is not white! Hell, they ain't even old-timey."
- At the Crossroads: The three meet Tommy here after he sold his soul to the devil to become a famous musician, in reference to the Robert Johnson Urban Legend. At this point, they also meet Big Dan Teague. Think about it.
- It's actually based on Tommy Johnson, who originated the story. Robert Johnson stole this story (and is more famous), but thats not a bad thing to say about bluesmen at all.
- Baleful Polymorph: Not really, but it's what Delmar believes the sirens do to Pete.
- Berserk Button: George "Babyface" Nelson. Truth in Television with the real George Nelson.
- Also, Pete doesn't take kindly to people stealing from his kin.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Sort of. Delmar is the only member of the group to turn and attack Big Dan head-on when Dan shows his True Colors. Unfortunately, he still gets his ass kicked.
- Blatant Lies: "That ain't your daddy. Your daddy was hit by a train."
- Blind Seer: Lampshaded by Everett, who insists the man has a Disability Superpower.
- Book Ends: The film opens with a chain gang together working near a railroad track and singing. The film closes with Everett and Penny's daughters tied together by twine walking over a railroad track and singing.
- Breakaway Pop Hit: The soundtrack had its own sequels.
- In-movie also, since the Soggy Bottom Boys' singing is so good it helps resolve the plot.
- Brick Joke: The blind prophet at the beginning of the film mentions the trio will see a cow on the roof of a cotton house. Guess what they see after the land is flooded near the end of the film.
- There's also a very subtle example that probably went over the head of most viewers. John Goodman's character is clearly modeled on the cyclops of Homer's The Odyssey, with his eye patch and his violent confrontation with the heroes. Goodman's character is later revealed to be a member of the Klan. Though unmentioned in the film, one of the Klan's rankings is "Grand Cyclops."
- Burn, Baby, Burn
- The Cast Showoff: Real-life blues singer Chris Thomas King plays Tommy, and at one point gets to sing (in his own voice) a rendition of Skip James' "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues."
- Censorship by Spelling: "Mrs. Hogwallop up and R-U-N-N-O-F-T." Becomes somewhat of a Running Gag.
- Chained Heat
- Chekhov's Gun: Everett's pomade, particularly its distinctive smell, which lets the Sheriff track them down.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Delmar "We Thought You Was a Toad" O'Donnell.
- Color Wash: They messed with the hue and saturation until everything was an intensely colorful brown, imitating the look of sepia-toned photos.
- Corrupt Hick: The insanely corrupt Big Dan Teague. Who is channeling the cyclops Polyphemus.
- Cult Soundtrack: The soundtrack album is regarded as one of the most important Country and Bluegrass albums of the decade and sold over 7 million copies. It also won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002, making it one of only three soundtracks to ever win that award.
- Deal with the Devil: Tommy Johnson traded his soul to the devil at the crossroads for his guitar skills. This is the same claim made by the real blues musician Robert Johnson.
- Deep South
- Defictionalization: The Soggy Bottom Boys.
- Deliberately Monochrome: Of the sepia variety, see Real Is Brown below.
- Deus Ex Machina: The flooding happens at exactly the right time to save them all from being hanged. Possibly a literal example.
- Disney Death: Pete was believed to have transformed into a Toad by the launderer sirens, so they take him in a box. The toad was then killed by Big Dan Teague by being crushed, and his friends were physically incapable of stopping his death because they were beaten to bloody pulps. It was later revealed that the toad was actually not Pete, nor was he even transformed by a toad: Turns out those "launderer sirens" actually delivered him to Sheriff Cooley's men for the reward, and is now a prisoner back at the farm.
- The Ditz: Delmar.
- Empty Piles of Clothing: This (and a toad) cause the other two to assume Pete's been turned into a toad.
- Enthralling Siren: The three washerwomen are the siren stand-ins.
- Everything's Better with Cows: One is gunned down during an estampede ("Cows! I hate cows worse than coppers!"), another is involved in the Brick Joke.
- Eyepatch of Power: Big Dan Teague.
- Fairy Tale Motifs: Well, more like Mythology Motifs, but whatever.
- Fake Band: The Soggy Bottom Boys.
- Fat Sweaty Southerner in a White Suit: Several. Most notably, Governor Pappy O'Daniel (for the mildly corrupt version) and Big Dan Teague (for the insanely corrupt version).
- First Father Wins
- Friend to All Living Things: Delmar, or butterflies at the least.
- Funny Background Event: Everett, Delmar, and Pete are all chained together, and try to escape by boarding a moving train. In the foreground we see Everett (on the train) introducing himself to some hobos. In the background, Pete trips before he can climb in...
- Also, Pete's gloriously goofy dancing during Delmar's rendition of "In the Jailhouse Now."
- Background singing - in Man of Constant Sorrow, Everett finishes singing a depressing stanza that ends in the line "perhaps I'll die upon this train..." and Delmar and Pete chime in with a cheery "Perhaps he'll die upon this train!"
- Genre Busting: It's a musical/comedy/social commentary/retelling of The Odyssey... that's set in The Great Depression.
- Go Out with a Smile: George Nelson. We don't see him killed but his last scene is him having been caught by a mob and being lead to his execution. He's more then happy with it however, the mob was even nice enough to give him some violinists as a funeral march.
- Historical In-Joke
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Stephen Root as Mr. Lund, the blind radio
DJRJ(?). This is probably an Actor Allusion, as well.
- Hypocritical Humor: Just before he's executed, Everett prays to God to let him see his daughters at least one more time. When the dam breaks and saves him, he starts going on about reason. The other two immediately call him out on it.
- Implacable Man: the Sheriff.
- Insufferable Genius: Everett.
- Inspector Javert: The Sheriff tries to characterize himself this way at the very end, claiming that the boys have only been pardoned by the law of man.
- Not exactly tries, considering he's... well...
- Ironic Nursery Tune: The siren-seduction scene, to "Didn't Leave Nobody But The Baby" Also a rare case of erotic Nightmare Fuel.
- The Lancer: Pete.
- Large and In Charge: Governor Pappy O'Daniel.
- Louis Cypher: The Sheriff who is chasing after them. His Scary Shiny Glasses reflect fire a lot.
- Magic Realism: There are more than a few downright mystical occurrences in the film, such as the prophet, the sirens, and the strong implication that the Warden is Satan.
- The way the movie is framed - it starts with a scene of a generic chain gang with no main characters in it, singing as they break rocks, then cuts to black before the actual movie begins - gives rise to the theory that the entire story is being presented as a myth, a subject of chain gang songs, as opposed to "real" events. The pointedly non-realistic bent of many of the movie's events (the KKK marching in a chorus line?) would seem to indicate this.
- Meaningful Name: In a story based off The Odyssey, the main character's name is Ulysses.
- Musical World Hypotheses: Diegetic all the way through, making its classification as a musical to begin with dubious to some.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: There really was a Depression-era Governor named Pappy O'Daniel, but his given name was Wilbert Lee O'Daniel; in the film the governor's real first name is Menelaus (another Homer reference). Also the real O'Daniel was governor of Texas, not Mississippi.
- Not His Sled: The expected fate of John Goodman's "cyclops" is deliberately referenced then avoided. Then happens slightly differently anyway.
- Oh Crap: John Goodman's reaction when he realizes that the fiery cross was coming down directly at him.
- Also, Homer Stokes' reaction when he realizes that the town, after his attempt at getting the Soggy Bottom Boys arrested failed, is now going to run him out of town on a rail as revenge for interrupting the performance.
- Paper-Thin Disguise: Toward the end of the movie, the fugitive "Soggy Bottom Boys" perform while disguised with false beards. Lampshaded later, when their performance wins over the crowd and Everett deliberately yanks his beard off for a moment.
- Politically-Correct History: Zig-zagged. The white heroes refer to Tommy as a "boy," but otherwise treat him as an equal. The radio station manager insists that he won't play "colored songs," but once the "Soggy Bottom Boys" become popular, Pappy O'Daniel doesn't seem to care that "they's integrated." The KKK is shown in all its silly racist glory, but also portrayed as a fringe organization that is not looked upon favorably by the common townsfolk.
- Perhaps it was thanks to the Power of Bluegrass that was able to sway their minds?
- More likely that the townsfolk were more upset by Stokes interrupting the Soggy Bottom Boys' performance by trying to have them arrested and didn't care what else he said.
- Perhaps it was thanks to the Power of Bluegrass that was able to sway their minds?
- Politically-Incorrect Villain Homer Stokes, candidate for governor by day, Klansman by night.
- Note that in 1932 Mississippi, being a Klansman would have been politically correct. It would have been almost impossible for Stokes to be a serious candidate for governor without being one.
- Pop Culture Osmosis: The Coens have claimed that they've never actually read The Odyssey, but know the story through its various adaptations.
- Produce Pelting: What the audience does when Homer Stokes ends up interrupting the Soggy Bottom Boys performance to get them arrested, that as well as ride him out of town on a rail.
- Real Is Brown: Pursued with a vengeance, given that a substantial portion of the film's post-production budget went into extensive color-correction. The Coens wanted every frame of the film to reflect the dingy, withered dustbowl look, and in some cases took entire fields of green flora and turned them yellow.
- Rock Me, Asmodeus: "And I have it from the highest 'thority, that that negra...sold his soul to the Devil!!!" (the townsfolk don't buy into it, though)
- Running Gag: Briefly.
"Damn, we're in a tight spot!"
- Everett's obsession with his Dapper Dan
hair gelpomade also counts.
- Everett's obsession with his Dapper Dan
- Satan: Sheriff Cooley is
heavily impliedexplicitly theorized to be this.
- Scary Shiny Glasses: The Sheriff/Warden/ Devil wears these.
- Seinfeldian Conversation: This charming example:
"He's gonna paddle our little behind."
- The discussion of a "grease spot on the L&N" and a "bona-fide" suitor ranks right up there too.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Everett. Also Big Dan Teague. For example, from the Funny Background Event described above:
- Shout-Out: Tommy's Deal with the Devil is a reference to a similar deal supposedly made by real-life bluesman Robert Johnson.
- And Tommy Johnson, also a real blues musician, who spread the same rumor about himself, to enhance his fame.
- The title of the movie is itself a Shout-Out, to Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels.
- The KKK scene is based off of the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Scarecrow, Lion and Tin man try to sneak into the witches castle. The guards are chanting the way the KKK does and even doing a similar dance, and the three heroes steal disguises from the guards/kkk.
- The Soggy Bottom Boys are a reference to the Light Crust Doughboys, who were featured on the real-life Pappy O'Daniel's radio show.
- There's a coffin floating on a flooded river at the end, which is most certainly a shout out to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
- A man named Ulysses meets a blues singer at a crossroads. Coincidence?
- Sophisticated As Hell: Many of the characters in a patchily-educated way, but mostly Everett. "I'm the goddamn paterfamilias!"
- Stout Strength: Big Dan Teague.
- Stern Chase: The Warden's search for the three convicts.
- Surrounded by Idiots - Pappy O'Daniel's cronies and son are sycophantic yes-men who are a bit slow on the uptake, and Pappy is painfully aware of this. This is most likely the reason he tries to convince Vernon T. Waldrip to leave Stokes' campaign and join his.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: "Who is that man?" "Not my husband." Also doubles as a Shout-Out to the source material.
- The Vamp: The three sirens
- Those Two Guys: Pappy's two advisors, see the Seinfeldian Conversation above.
- Villainous Glutton: Big Dan Teague, as befits his correspondence with the cyclops Polyphemus.
- T-Word Euphemism: Sort of. One character wants to prevent his son from knowing that his mother left the family, so he just says she "Up and R-U-N-N-O-F-T."
- Subverted later on, in that the kid knew exactly what he was talking about, anyway.
- Villainous Breakdown: "Babyface" Nelson and Homer Stokes.
- Nelson gets better...sort of.
- "MY NAME IS GEORGE NELSON, AND I'M FEELIN' TEN FEET TALL!"
- Villain with Good Publicity: Homer Stokes, oh so much
- Working on the Chain Gang: The story begins with Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar escaping from this while chained to each other. Pete, at one point, is recaptured and put back to work on the chain gang and has to be broken out of prison again.
- X Meets Y: The Three Stooges meets The Odyssey.