Nearly four years after its original release date O -- a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare's Othello directed by Tim Blake Nelson (You know him as Delmar in O Brother Where Art Thou?) -- has finally opened on 150 screens around the country.
The story, which ends with a spate of killings by a handful of teenagers, was pulled from release in 1998 after the Columbine shootings. Its release was delayed yet again after similar shootings in Santee, CA. The multiple shelvings of this project certainly make it seem as if the notoriously, ?who me?? Hollywood has a real conscious after all, but more than likely the delays were an act of self preservation to stave off inevitable if dubious accusations that the excessive violence of America?s entertainment culture is at least partly if not entirely to blame for so much real world bloodshed.
No doubt Lion?s Gate execs feared that like the wrongfully vilified Fight Club ?a film where only one person dies and that death changes everything?O would become a fetish item for tinseltown?s semi-annual bout of self flagellation. And while there is an irksome quality to much of the glorified violence that spills out of southern California O is not your garden variety high school shoot-em-up. In fact, had the film been released after Columbine it might have gone a long way to answer all the dangling, ?Whys? that surrounded that horrible event.
The ancient Greeks ascribed a certain medicinal quality to tragedy and O is every bit as classical as it is contemporary. An as-scheduled release amid the media whirlwind that was Columbine might have spawned useful debate. It could have become a part of the healing process. It might have helped other disenfranchised teens to see that their plight was neither new nor singular, reducing the number of copycat shootings.
Or not. Either way there has not been a better examination of the dark, seemingly invisible forces that lead teens to take up arms against a sea of troubles to oppose and ultimately end them. If anything, O?s conclusion is a pill too true and too bitter for most adults to swallow. It shows clearly how the status quo established by adults ? a random system of neototalitarian rewards which glorify such ultimately unimportant things as wealth, physical beauty and athletic prowess beyond measure ? establishes volatile and dangerously oppressive hierarchies resplendent with cruelty, and bristling with violent opportunity.
Anyone who has lived through high school will recognize every unsettling moment. Nothing has been exaggerated and it is this straight up portrait of true teen angst and its ?say it ain?t so? origins that makes O more terrifying than any beasty Stephen King ever conjured. Students of Shakespeare will also be delighted by the fact that while all of the language has been made contemporary and certain liberties have been taken in adaptation, the film is true in every way to the source material. It is the finest big screen adaptation of Shakespeare to date. In some ways ? dare I say it ? for modern audiences it is a less eloquent improvement over the original.
O tells the story of a promising black athlete named Odin who has been recruited to play basketball for an exclusive and otherwise white southern prep school with a winning tradition. The power structure in place could not more closely resemble that of Shakespeare?s Venice. Desdemona?s father Barbantio, a man of great influence, becomes the dean of students. The Duke becomes Coach Duke. Iago (Hugo in this adaptation, excellently played by Josh Hartnett becomes Duke?s slighted son, an able and underrated power forward consumed by the jealousy his own father has set into motion. Othello/Odin (Mekhi ?just give me the damn Oscar? Phifer) is a sensitive black beauty, brilliant point guard, gracious MVP and able team captain who is ass over elbow in love with the lovely, lovable and oh-so lilly white Desi/Desdemona (Julia ?No, give me the damn Oscar? Stiles).
The tension lines could not be more perfectly drawn. Coach Duke (an over-the-top Martin Sheen doing his best Bobby Knight) is an abrasive leader for whom winning is the only thing. He continues to praise and protect Odin while neglecting his son who struggles for his attention and affections. Desolate, disconsolate, and wise beyond his years Hugo plays the existing power structure like a Stradivarius. He convinces Odin that Desi is cheating on him with Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan) and that the secret lovebirds call him ?the nigger? behind his back. Odin tries to be rational, but as Hugo?s plan unfolds he is torn apart by the same green-eyed bugaboo that fueled Shakespeare?s original.
The story?s most potent element comes in the form of Rodrigo/ Roger
Rodriguez (Elden Henson), a wealthy young student bereft of beauty, ace or skill on the court. He is less the classic, typically laughable
screen geek than an average high school nothing convinced by the ersuasive Hugo that with proper instruction he has a chance to woo and win the beautius Desi. Though Henson?s on screen time is limited it is ime well spent. The rage that bubbles up in his crying eyes as his
oversized ears are thumped red by smarmy preps and cocky jocks is angible and stomach turning. You can taste the bitterness, and it comes
as no surprise that he ends up with a gun in his hand and a bullet in is head. His is the most simple, head splitting portrayal of
potentially homicidal anger since Chris Penn?s chilling appearance in
The film?s final gruesome scenes though shot simply and without excess gore are often too painful to watch in light of recent tragedies. But as Odin comes face to face with the truth paraphrasing The Moor of Venice?s final command to ?Tell my story,? it is impossible to turn away. The rest is, just as Shakespeare wrote it, an awful silence. Hugo, refusing to explain his actions shows more arrogance than remorse. ?Why,? lingers on everyones? lips as eyes dart from side to side looking for someone to blame. Othello is doubtless the most troubling account of man?s darkest angels in action, and O unflinchingly tells it like it is.