Tim Blake Nelson’s O adapts Shakespeare’s Othello as a modern, moody, lush, teenage Southern Gothic. Sixteenth century Venice becomes a South Carolina prep school, Palmetto Grove, in the late 1990s; Venice’s armies become the school’s basketball team, the Hawks. The Hawks are crushing it this season, all thanks to jersey number 4, senior Odin James (Mekhi Phifer). Other standout players include sophomore Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan) and another senior, Hugo Goudling (Josh Hartnett). When it comes time for coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) to award the MVP, Odin’s the obvious choice. The surprise comes when Odin decides to share the award with a teammate, selecting Michael. Not Hugo. That night, Hugo tells his roommate Roger (Elden Henson) he’s got a plan to break up Odin and his girlfriend, Desi Brable (Julia Stiles). When Roger asks Hugo why—“I thought you were his friend,” he says—Hugo explains the co-MVP should have gone to him, at least as far as Odin’s concerned. But there’s at least another layer to Hugo’s motivations—coach Duke Goulding is his dad and straight-A student Hugo has put four years into the basketball team. The MVP award his senior year would’ve been a perfect acknowledgement and a seemingly possible one.
“I’m considered a utility man. I rebound, I can shoot, I play guard, forward, power forward. You name the position, I fucking play it.”
Hugo to Roger
O doesn’t just update the setting and situations of Othello, it profoundly changes the characters. Phifer’s Othello/Odin—the only Black student at the South Carolina prep school—has some specific fears and insecurities about that status. He’s secretly dating Desi, after all, and Desi’s the white dean’s white daughter, which incurs a lot of outside aggression, albeit ones mostly passive and micro. Inside their relationship, despite any posturing, Odin’s devoted to Desi, devoted to what she represents, what they–together–represent.
Hugo intuits all those insecurities and encourages them into weaknesses and into what become fatal flaws for everyone involved. Hugo’s an unquestionable villain, but he’s just working with what he’s got. If Michael weren’t eager to please, if Roger weren’t resentful (the wealthiest blue blood on campus yet the girls still go for the jocks)—they’re both naive from various privileges. Hugo’s able to make it work. His first plan, which he starts concocting at the MVP ceremony, appears to simply be getting Odin in trouble for dating Desi. Or at least to stir things up. But it’s already a more layered one, with Michael as the target. Because Hugo understands Michael’s desire to impress Odin.
And Hugo (thanks to Roger’s willingness to be Michael and Odin’s frequent punching bag) is able to get Michael off the team. At least out of games, which doesn’t necessarily give Hugo any better opportunities on the court, but it does get him close to Odin. Close to Odin, he tries to cement further distrust of Michael. Because Hugo’s already got Michael trying to befriend Desi so she’ll tell Odin to fight for him to get back on the team. Duke will listen to Odin. Odin, Duke tells everyone at the MVP ceremony first thing, is like his son. Not “like a son,” but “like his son.” Except Odin and Hugo are very, very different. And Hugo’s an afterthought to Duke. A relied-upon afterthought, but an afterthought. He’s just not good enough. Duke’s been waiting his whole career for Odin.
“You know I don’t ever have to worry about you, thank God. You’ve always done well and you always will, but Odin’s different. He’s all alone here. There’s not even another Black student in this whole damn place. We’re his family.”
Duke to Hugo
Once Hugo has gotten his girlfriend Emily (Rain Phoenix) to steal a memento from Desi (they’re roommates), and used it to convince Odin of Desi and Michael’s affair, Hugo’s got the problem of three loose ends. Odin will never believe Michael or his protestations of innocence, especially not after—advantageously and presumably unexpectedly, but maybe not—Michael lets his racism out when talking about Odin.
Master eavesdropper Hugo has already got Odin listening in so it couldn’t go better.
Michael’s not guilty of pursuing or seducing Desi—he’s actually just some dopey sophomore who makes an effort to listen to his female friends, though it’s a Madonna-whore thing, not because he sees them as people or anything—but he’s still not not guilty. He’s not not racist. He’s not not a bully. He’s not not a bad guy when it comes to girls. He doesn’t deserve what he gets, but he gets it because the material is there for Hugo to work with.
So Michael’s not going to be a loose end for long. He’s the most disposable, in fact. Emily’s a loose end, though Hugo doesn’t anticipate her being a problem. He’s got a plan for Roger, which he doesn’t share with anyone else because Hugo does see Roger as a fellow victim. Hugo understands what’s going at Palmetto Grove—he understands how his father treats him, how it feels, why his father’s doing it, he understands Odin, he understands Michael, Roger, Emily—and, of the men, Roger’s the only one Hugo shows any compassion. Even when he doesn’t have to show it to keep Roger going with the scheme.
And Desi’s a loose end. Desi’s the biggest loose end. Getting Odin not to believe Michael only takes so much work, it’s an achievable goal. Michael’s going to dig himself in deeper, one way or the other. Roger won’t crack for anyone at school, not when Hugo’s already convinced him to take multiple beatings. But Odin will want to believe Desi, which will reveal Hugo’s manipulations. So Desi’s got to go.
O doesn’t have most of the traditional Othello trappings as far as Iago/Hugo’s motivations go. The MVP thing sets Hugo off, sure, but it’s already been established he’s envious of Othello/Odin’s position as an athlete, as Duke’s favored “son.” Hugo describes it all as jealousy but it’s closer to envy. A functional one, at least until he’s racing downhill trying to keep the lies from catching up. Hugo’s going off to college. He’s going to be fine. He’s just got to get to the finish, with at least Odin intact.
“Nobody doesn’t like [Hugo]. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have at least one enemy.”
Desi to Emily
Unlike Othello, O doesn’t suggest Odin and Emilia/Emily fooled around or anything like Hugo having a crush on Desdemona/Desi. Quite the opposite on the latter. The two seem to loathe one another, which makes sense. They’re both staff’s students. The school’s performative with its scholastic egalitarianism, putting the dean and coach’s kids in the dorms, the upper middle class among the real upper class. Desi and Hugo know each other. They have known each other a while. And they have zero empathy for one another. Desi’s the only one who thinks Hugo’s a creep. Everyone else just sees the good student, the good teammate. Even as Hugo tries to destroy Michael, the team’s games always come first. Winning is the important thing; even if Hugo’s not singled out for contributing (because Duke has clearly never singled him out with a positive comment). It reflects on Hugo. He doesn’t have to worry because no matter how much turmoil he creates, Hugo can always rely on Odin to come through on the court.
There’s no one in O who has higher expectations for Odin than Hugo. Hugo lionizes him. Hugo sees his father living the white savior sports movie dream with Odin and believes the dream to be valid, just not Duke’s execution of it. O isn’t about Hugo and Odin, it’s about Hugo and Duke. It’s about Duke and his son. Everyone else is collateral damage. For Hugo, Odin is a prized action figure. For Duke, he’s a trophy.
Hartnett’s performance is all about his expressions. It’s all about watching this emotional cut wound him, this emotional stab, this observed opportunity, this revealed insecurity. Hugo’s always thinking, watching, listening. The plans form across Hartnett’s face, in his blinks, his pauses, his patience. Everyone in the film has their implied interiority and all, but with Hartnett, the whole thing hinges on his understanding and essaying of Hugo’s interiority. When Hugo refuses to explain himself, leaving his motivations a mystery, his loose ends tied, the audience has already seen some of them. Or at least those Hugo let affect him.
“You won’t ask me nothing. I did what I did. That’s all you need to know. From here on, I’ll say nothing.”
Hugo to Odin
It’s also in the expression when O gets in its last surprise. Being an Othello adaptation, a lot is predictable. But Hugo’s got one last reveal, one unquestionably authentic reaction. And it changes the entire film, start to finish, untying the bow, folding it over, retying.
O came at the end of the late nineties-early aughts teen Shakespeare adaptation boom. Brad Kaaya’s script leverages the source material rather than relying upon it, letting Nelson turn it into that Southern Gothic, with Hartnett a metaphor for the culture he and his victims exist in. He’s not some pedestrian evil, he’s a prodigious and entirely natural one. The teenage sociopath who wants to be a real boy but just can’t make his brain wooden enough. Far from shocking, Hartnett’s Hugo is inevitable in a way Iago never could be.