In The Darkrnby George McCartneyrnOdysseysrnHomer’s Odyssey is the perfect narrativernform for film. What other medium is asrnwell equipped to render fantastic journeysrnfilled with willful gods, unreasonablernmonsters, and enchanting women?rnThis explains why three recent films haverndrawn upon the epic for their inspiration.rnhi O Brother, Where Art Thou?, filmmakingrnbrothers Joel and Ethan Coenrnhave decided to go James Joyce one better.rnIreland’s Homer set his Ulysses inrnDublin of 1904. The Coens have placedrntheirs in Depression-era Mississippi,rnnamed him Ulysses Everett McGillrn(George Clooney), and introduced himrnby quoting Homer’s invocation to thernmuse. Furthermore, they have blessedrnhim with a tireless Odyssean optimismrnquite invulnerable to the travails that besetrnhim at every turn.rnWhen we first meet Everett, he’s makingrna break from a chain gang, taking twornother convicts with him (they happen tornbe chained together). He’s determinedrnto return to his wife, whose name is, naturally,rnPenney (Holly Hunter). There’srnjust one problem: Although this Odysseusrnis cheerfully ready for all occasions,rnhe doesn’t have the wiliness his namesakernpossessed, and so he frequentiy findsrnhimself overwhelmed by the variousrnchallenges thrown in his path. These includernthree enchanting sirens he and hisrndim-witted accomplices (John Turturrornand Tim Blake Nelson) find washingrntheir unmentionables in a branch of thernMississippi River. These cuties wieldrnCircean powers, hi their seductive wake,rnthey leave a lower life-form where oncernstood what passed for a man. Shortly afterward,rnthe Cyclops shows up in thernmountainous form of John Goodman, arnviciously cunning, one-eyed Bible salesman.rnThen there’s the state’s governor—rnMenelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel (CharlesrnDurning)—who believes his political futurernlies in “mass communicating” on arnradio show called Pappy’s Hour of FlourrnPower. Here, Ulysses Everett rises to thernoccasion, taking to the microphone tornsing “A Man of Constant Sorrow” Andrnbecoming an overnight sensation.rnAll of these episodes are carried offrnwith a beguiling comic energy. Never-rnO Brother, Where Art Thou?rnProduced by Buena Vista Picturesrnand Touchstone PicturesrnDirected by ]oel CoenrnScreenplay by Ethan Coenrnwith help from HomerrnReleased bv Buena Vista PicturesrnAll the Pretty HorsesrnProduced by Columbia Picturesrnand Miramax FilmsrnDirected by Billy Bob ThorntonrnScreenplay by Ted Tallyrnfrom a novel by Comiac McCarthyrnReleased by Miramax Filmsrnand Sony PicturesrnTrafficrnProduced by Bedford Falls andrnInitial F,ntertainment GrouprnDirected by Steven SoderberghrnScreenplay by Stephen GaghanrnReleased by Initial Entertainment Grouprntheless, at the final credits, I felt curiouslyrndissatisfied. The Coens have created arnproblem for themselves by invoking thernOdyssey and then treating it as merely thernoccasion for light humor. Joyce got comicrnleverage from the epic, but he alsornused it to demonstrate how the past pressesrnineluctably on the present, shaping usrnin ways we only dimly perceive unless wernawaken to its force in our daily lives. Forrnthe Coens, however, the past is merely arnstoreroom from which to filch somernamusing episodes.rnCase in point: the massive, torchlit KurnKlux Klan assembly Everett and his associatesrnstiuiible into one night. With itsrnwhite-gowned, chanting legions performingrnritualistic marching routines to an incessantrndrumbeat, the scene is, at first,rngenuinely frightening. But the episodernquickly descends into an Abbott-and-rnCostello farce with our heroes scamperingrnabout in an attempt to rescue a youngrnblack man who’s the guest of honor at thernevening’s lynching. The scene becomesrnjust one more in a series of weightlessrngags. While there’s nothing wrong withrnthis as such, it is a bit of a letdown consideringrnthe expectations raised by thernfilm. Not only do the Coens invokernHomer’s epic, they steal from PrestonrnSturges’s peerless 1941 film, Sullivan’srnTravels, a genuinely funny and scathingrnsatire in which a pampered Hollywoodrnmusical director wants to make a sociallyrnconscious film entitled O Brother, WherernArt Thou? Few directors have skeweredrnpretension and hypocrisy as cleverly asrnSturges, and I couldn’t help feeling a bitrncheated when the Coens—who clearlyrnadmire him—didn’t try to do the same.rnThey seem to think their clever, postmodernrnrecycling of earlier works constitutesrnartistic achievement in itself. Itrndoesn’t, especially when the earlier worksrnare so much more engaging.rnIntentionally or not, in his adaptationrnof Cormac McCarthy’s All the PrettyrnHorses, director Billy Bob Thorntonrncomes closer to the Odyssey than the Coens.rnThornton has followed McCarthy’srnnarrative closely, tracing the travails ofrnJohn Grady Cole (Matt Damon), arnyoung man who, after being forced tornleave his beloved family ranch in Texas,rnfinds himself wandering through Mexicornin 1949. In this unfamiliar landscape, hernmeets physical and cultural challengesrnfor which he has no guidebook. He mustrnrely on his native wit and physical resilience.rnHe soon conies under the spellrnof a local enchantress and is later arrestedrnby a myopically singleminded authority.rnHe descends into a hellish Mexican penitentiaryrnwhere he learns things aboutrnhimself he had never suspected and subsequentlyrnstruggles to return home.rnWhether McCarthy designed his plotrnwith Homer in mind, the epic parallel isrnthere, and so is its moral weight.rnIn the novel. Cole and his partner,rnLacey Rawlins (Henr’ Thomas), are presentedrnas American innocents who, withoutrnbeing quite aware of it, yearn for a traditionrnthat would nurture their inherentrnnobility. At the narrative’s outset, Rawlinsrnasks Cole what he believes in. Is thererna God, a heaven, a hell? Cole replies, “Irnguess you can believe what you want to.”rnThis improvisational theology is the onlyrnspiritual legacy his American upbringingrnhas provided him. It will be severely testedrnby what he learns in Mexico.rnCole wants nothing more than to con-rnMARCH 2001/49rnrnrn