The impaired short-term memory of Memento’s American Everyman hero wins our sympathy, but his deliberate exploitation of his “condition” gradually earns our suspicion as well. Leonard Shelby is a genuine victim, but he’s also criminally violent, profoundly deceived, and haunted by unwelcome memories. So as the film’s reverse-order narration unwinds,displaying his willful revision of long-term memories about his marriage, profession, and motives, we should likewise rewind and revise our initial sympathy.
Beneath its broad caricatures and genrebending, O Brother, Where Art Thou? has an earnest, Depressionera agenda. Its episodic plot can be understood as a series of moral trials in which the solidarity of the poor is tested by various threats and temptations of the rich and powerful. The most crucial of these tests is put not to the film's protagonists, but to its audience: Will we see, as clearly as do the three white fugitives, that their fate is inextricably bound to that of their black brethren?