The story behind O has become more infamous than the film itself. The film has had twelve different release dates and was actually finished in 1999. It had the dubious nature of having the themes of jealousy and violence set in high school around the time Columbine had polarized the nation. Miramax subsequently kept pushing the film back until it finally jettisoned it over to Lions Gate films, the same people who rescued ‘Dogma’ when Miramax felt it was too hot to handle for corporate parent Disney. Finally now O is getting the release it has waited for.
O is the modern update of Othello but is by no means in the same brethren of the bubbly Shakespeare ripped teen comedies proliferating the screen big and small. O is a serious tale told with earnestness in its portrayal, and with its conviction and refusal for exploitation, executes the best modern day transition of Shakespeare to date. What better setting for lust, jealousy, love, betrayal, murder and tragedy than a high school? It is almost chilling how well the tale translates to the high school setting, particularly with the notices of race and jealousy.
Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) is the only black student at an all white prep school in Charleston, South Carolina. Odin is the senior leader of the school’s basketball team and an all-star in the making. Odin, or “O” as the crowd chants at games, is dating Desi (Julia Stiles), the daughter of the dean. She’s a spitfire but they love one another with great intensity. Everything seems to be going well for Odin with school, his relationship, and his team entering into the state playoffs. His coach (Martin Sheen) proclaims his love for Odin like a son at a pep rally with the denizens in the stands cheering along. Everyone appears to be cheering for their popular hero, except for Hugo (Josh Hartnett).
Hugo is the coach’s son and perennially looked over on the basketball team. He looks at Odin and is fueled with jealousy for the admiration and love his father would rather bestow on him than his own son. Dinner at home is a more a cold silence than a family activity. Hugo is jealous of all the things Odin has that he cannot have and some that he will never have. So he sets forth in motion a plan to bring the downfall of the popular kids he despises. Hugo enlists the aid of gullible Roger (Elden Henson) who’s picked on heavily from the same people Hugo wishes to topple. Hugo coaxes Mike (Andrew Keegan), ousted form the basketball team after a staged fight with Roger, that the best way to regain the good will of Odin and his father is to cozy up to Desi and convince her. He then plants the seeds of doubt in Odin with Desi. He draws Desi’s roommate Emily (Rain Phoenix) into the scheme by seducing her into stealing a rare handkerchief that Odin had given Desi as a show of love and commitment.
With every pawn somehow moving in the directions Hugo wishes the jealousy boils, love turns to heartbreak, and the game ultimately ends violently. It isn’t called “tragedy” for nothing folks.
Othello is, at its heart, the tale of a villain and his masterminding. The center figure is not on our hapless Moor or his lovely Desdemona, but on the treacherous Iago as he plots the tragedy of those around him with woeful precision. Shakespeare’s Othello has quite possibly the greatest villain in all of literature with Iago. He is a man who positions an elaborate staging of jealousy, insecurity, mistrust, and ultimately murder – and all this time he is given center stage to propel his masterwork. And it’s exciting, giving genuine evil a face, a name, and more importantly than anything else, a vicious intelligence to play out. This is why Othello transcends its problems in story staging and character turning points, because it is a tale told from the hands of its most essential leg: the villain.
Hartnett takes the reigns of the picture and gallops with them with great care. Though shot and filmed years before many of his latest pictures, O shows Hartnett in his most methodical and enticing acting turn. He portrays Hugo smoothly giving equal shades of bitterness and envy with his sullen performance. Harnett is so invigorating as the villain that one almost sides with him, but that is the attraction of evil. O decides to pump more motivation for its villain than Shakespeare had included, and it works in a startlingly believable way. A student plotting the demise of a more popular and athletic student and seeking the love of an inattentive father – maybe this is why Miramax shelved it for two years. The motivation in this setting is totally believable to a chilling point.
Phifer is a charming presence and reflects the descent of Odin with good emotion. One can feel the rage just resonating from him during a slam dunk contest which he brings down the backboard and sternly glares at Desi in the stands. His final declaration with all the chaos that has swarmed around him is almost heart breaking. Stiles, on the other hand, is not given too much to work with but seems to make decent use out of her part. Sheen blusters about like the spawn of Bobby Knight, but shows a more frightening side in his ambivalent relationship to his son.
O is deftly directed by Tim Blake Nelson who might be more well known as the “other” chain gang member in O Brother where Art Thou? Nelson periodically adds little touches of great artistic exchanges that elevate O into something more than another teen film. It even achieves a certain level of poignancy and power as Hartnett is led away and speaking reflective about his deeds to the audience. The script from debut screenwriter Brad Kaaya drops Shakespeare’s prose but for the best. The film has a greater sense of realism and authenticity when the main characters aren’t talking in iambic pentameter.
The film isn’t perfect by certain means. Hugo’s plot seems a tad too elaborate and easily achieved, and Odin seems to fall for some questionable pieces of doubt. I mean, what else will an old hanky be used for in a modern film? But these faults can be blamed on Shakespeare as much as the principals involved behind the film. Despite these minor stumbles O is indeed a great film that deserves to be seen and thought over afterwards.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Posted on August 11, 2001, in 2001 Movies and tagged drama, high school, josh hartnett, julia stiles, martin sheen, mekhi phifer, shakespeare, thriller, tim blake nelson. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.