Oh brother where art thou - example of deus ex machina

Example of Deus ex machina – Oh brother where art thou?

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There is a 100% probability that you’ve already heard the term but never really found an example of Deus ex machina done right.

Since ancient times there has been a fierce debate about whether this device is a clever writing technique or just a cop-out. Here, I want to explain when and why in certain cases it’s ok to use deus ex machina.

What is deus ex machina?

The Deus ex machina is a trick often used by writers to resolve a situation and either create a “happy ending”.

When a character finds himself in a terrible situation where he is not able to escape but gets saved by an unlikely event/power that sets him free.

This term literally means “God from the machine”. It has this strange name because in Ancient Greece playwrights had the habit of resolving conflict by literally bringing in a God that would change the ending of the story for the better.

Because this trick we used very very often in plays, many philosophers and storytellers started to criticize it, fast forward 2000 something years later the term deus ex machina is sometimes used as a synonym of lazy writing.

Is Deus ex machina that bad?

To be completely honest, if every movie I watch had a bearded guy with a fake lighting in his had come down from the sky and save the day, I would be on the critics’ side as well. Fortunately, I don’t live in ancient Greece.

Modern filmmaking and storytelling made it possible to add nuance to this trope. Sometimes it is a funny gag that makes the audience laugh and sometimes it’s a shameless trick that makes the audience shake their heads.

In short, people’s opinion on this trope depends on how well the writer can use it.

To give you a practical example of Deus ex machina, here’s one of the most famous movies by the Coen Brothers: “Oh brother, where art thou?”.

Oh brother, where art thou?

This movie has a perfect example of deus ex machina:

Right when things seem to be working out well for our 3 protagonists, they get caught by the Sheriff and are about to be hanged.

Suddenly, as Everett starts praying God for a chance to be saved, a wave comes and destroys everything in the valley.

The Sheriff and his men seem to have died, only our 3 main characters manage to escape alive.

This scene is an example of deus ex machina because it has:

  • an inescapable situation
  • the intervention of an external force seemingly out of nowhere
  • a conflict that has been resolved

Now that we have established that this particular scene counts as deus ex machina, we can ask the real question:

Is this lazy writing?

No, at least in my opinion it’s not.

We usually call “lazy writing” a nonsensical action/event that helps the writer avoid conflict and continue with the story rather than trying a little bit harder to find a more creative solution.

In the case of Oh brother, where art thou, the (alleged) intervention of God ties in with one of the themes of the movie.

During their adventures, Everett has been constantly making fun of his companions Pete and Delman for being naive and sometimes even stupid. Their religious beliefs are one of the reasons why he makes fun of them.

This theme comes up again when the 3 men meet Tommy, a black guitar player who claims to have sold his sold to the devil in order to gain the ability to play his instrument like nobody else. Everett makes fun of him as well.

But when he is confronted with the real possibility of death, he doesn’t say his usual catchphrase:

“We’re in a tight spot!”

He starts praying and we see him being humble and truthful for the first time when he asks to be able to see his daughters again.

After they are safe and floating away from the valley, he denies once again the existence of a God and gives a scientific explanation for the flood.

Deus ex machina as a test

We will never know if The soggy bottom boys were saved by their prayers or by a well-timed natural occurrence, but we do know that Everett has changed a little bit.

A deus ex machina creates a perfect condition to “test” the characters. In this case, it’s to test if Everett has enough humility to ask for help.

Putting the character through challenges helps the writer show their personalities, weaknesses, and strengths. But in all those scenarios the characters still have the option to take action and save themselves.

On the other hand, if the writer wants to go really deep into his character’s personality but also keep him alive, he will have to use a deus ex machina.

When the protagonist of a story finds himself without hope or allies, he reveals the deepest emotions, those parts of himself that he has never shown.

Everett, a vain and kind of manipulative man, shows his humility and the love for his family when he is on the verge of death.

In conclusion, this example of deus ex machina proves that this trope, in the hands of the right writer, can be a powerful tool and not just a cheap trick.


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