Tim Blake Nelson's "O," a modern-day retelling of William Shakespeare's "Othello," has had a long, arduous journey to the screen. Originally slated to open in the spring of 1999, it was quickly yanked from the release date following the Columbine shootings, an occurrence that "O" indelibly mirrors in its high school setting. The film kept being pushed back throughout the rest of that year and well into 2000, until Lions Gate Films wisely purchased it, promising the understandably distraught Nelson that the studio would finally allow his work to make it to the big screen. While most motion pictures that are continuously pushed from release dates signal a lack of faith in their success, this is certainly not the case of "O," which even won the Best Director prize at the 2000 Seattle Film Festival. Almost three years after its first planned release, "O" has finally arrived in theaters, and it was well worth the wait.
Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) has everything going for him. Virtually the only black person at his posh private high school, he is widely accepted by his peers, is the star player on the basketball team, and has found the love of his life in Desi Brable (Julia Stiles), whose father (John Heard) is the headmaster. Standing in the shadow of Odin is fellow teammate Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett), a young man destined to be taken over by jealousy and never fully appreciated by his own dad (Martin Sheen), who also happens to be the domineering basketball coach. Prepared to garner Odin's level of popularity and success at any cost, Hugo sets into motion an endless string of lies and deceitfulness that will forever change the lives of those around him.
As unflinchingly honest as any so-called "teen" film to come out in ages, the opening of the simply-titled "O" does not prepare you for the tragically emotional wallop it leaves behind ninety minutes later. Director Tim Blake Nelson (also an actor who starred in 2000's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") has crafted a remarkable achievement--a rare drama set in the halls of a high school that not only has more to say than who is going to take who to the prom, but also attains heightened levels of accuracy and truthfulness that cut directly to the bone.
"O" may be a loose adaptation of "Othello," a play written hundreds of years ago, but the subject matter directly links to what is going on in the lives of adolescents in today's often grim times. For the previous distributor, Miramax, to fear "O" would cause further eruptions of high school violence is shamefully ludicrous. As the frighteningly real climax culminates in a shocking, non-exploitative bloodbath, the only thing it leaves behind are a sense of broken lives that, in many cases, have no chance of ever being fixed. "O" is just about as "anti-violence" as a movie can possibly get without obstructing a definite feeling that the message is being jammed down the viewer's throat.
Every actor is on-target to portray their respective characters. Mekhi Phifer (1998's "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer") conveys an intrepid intensity as Odin, whose road to indomitable fame becomes a mere pawn in Hugo's master plan to bring him down. As Hugo, Josh Hartnett (2001's "Pearl Harbor") has never been so threatening, yet so sympathetic, at the same time. Hartnett's Hugo is the villain of the piece, to be sure, but he is also the main character, and the resentment he feels towards everyone around him, not to mention the absence of love in his relationship with his stern father, is palpably defined. It may be a cliche to say it, but Julia Stiles (2001's "Save the Last Dance") never fails to impress, and, if anything, continues to get even better with each passing movie. Stiles may play second fiddle on the screenplay level to Phifer and Hartnett, but she refuses to get upstaged, giving Desi a sense of both passing innocence and ultimate heartbreak. Martin Sheen (TV's "The West Wing") is stirringly rigid and forceful as Coach Goulding, who in one scene, breaks Hugo's heart by announcing at a basketball game that he loves Odin like his own son.
The other parts are rounded off with some superb supporting turns by Andrew Keegan (2000's "The Broken Hearts Club"), as Desi's best male friend, Michael, who is one of the causes for Odin's increasing suspicions about her fidelity; Elden Henson (1999's "Idle Hands"), as the internally weak Roger, a classmate forever taunted by the sports jocks; and Rain Phoenix (2000's "Spent"), as Desi's friend and Hugo's long-suffering girlfriend, Emily.
Whatever one may suspect at the onset, this is not a teen comedy, and it is not a lightweight entertainment. Unremittingly dark and incisively written, by Brad Kaaya, that the movie has rolled out across the country in a wide release is some sort of miracle. Save for a last-minute closing passage that feels slightly pat, the film is the real deal, with a final fifteen minutes of escalating, calamitous violence that leaves you shocked, on edge, and profoundly touched. "O" is one of the most thought-provoking motion pictures of the year.
©2001 by Dustin Putman