A Serious Man – Joel and Ethan Coen – Movie Review
THE COEN BROTHERS DO IT AGAIN FOR THE FIRST
by Kevin Bowen
published October 9, 2009
A Serious Man
now playing in select cities
The critical understanding of The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men often has divided, vaguely, between moralistic versus fatalistic interpretations. Is
the killer Anton Chiguhr a human being, and therefore does the film ask us to take measure of his cock-eyed morality? Or is he a specter, a
grim reaper for the modern age, a natural phenomenon that operates beyond moral application? How you answer this question creates powerfully
different interpretations of the film.
In this debate I have been a fatalist and have always placed an enormous
amount of weight on the conversation between the Sheriff and his aging uncle near the end. The Sheriff wishes to retire. He feels worn out by
the rise of nihilistic violence. He doesn’t believe it existed in the good old days.
His relative says no, there has always been this sort of violence. The old
man then tells the Sheriff that death will come for you when it comes for you, and you will have no say in it. To think that you will have a
say in the time or method of your own death, he says, is vanity. The Greeks would call this hubris. And hubris carries the implication of
arrogance in the face of divine fate.
As a tornado bears down in the final scene of A Serious Man – a match and then some for No Country’s much
debated ending – it puts this principle into spellbinding motion. Not only will death come when it comes without any knowledge or say, the
film argues; the God of this film is completely unknowable, all his intentions beyond understanding, and man’s puny struggles to interpret his
way are futile and – yes, that word – absurd. Somehow the Coens have simultaneously created their
most Jewish film and most existential film in a single try.
A Serious Man
is a story of stories built upon stories, or more accurately, fables upon fables. In an
early scene our dweebish physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) introduces us to Schrodinger’s Cat, a logical paradox that is
often illustrated by a dead cat in a box. It’s not enough to understand only the cat thing, he tells a failing student. That part is like a
fable of physics. You have to understand the mathematics behind it, he says, because that is the truth.
In fact, however, he’s wrong, too. Because mathematics is not the truth
itself, but only another form of representation of the truth, another way of placing the vast mystery of the Cosmos into our little finite
minds. In a dream sequence, we are introduced to a second mathematical proof, that of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which is a
mathematical way to prove a philosopher’s point – that everything is uncertain. (Mark “mystery.” We’re comin’ back to it.)
The uncertainty of it all is the continuing theme in the film. Our
professor wants to understand why God is allowing his life to fall apart all at once. He seeks answers to his Job-like sufferings (to which he
has an anti-Job-like reaction). What does God want? Why is he testing me? What am I supposed to do? He and we are treated to several fables –
such as the story of the Goy’s teeth – that let us know that, as the saying goes, the mind of God is unknowable and his plan ultimately a
The Coen Brothers have often been noted for being influenced by Stanley
Kubrick, and my understanding of 2001: A Space Odyssey dovetails nicely with my understanding of
A Serious Man. While many take
interest in HAL’s human qualities, I am more interested in the supercomputer’s “god-like” qualities. But what I’m really interested is in the
way that these qualities do not measure up to the actuality of divinity. Because the qualities in HAL that we think of as god-like are only
our erroneous understandings and projections of godliness, swallowed and regurgitated into finite form.
It is important to remember the final word of 2001 is “mystery.” At the moment after HAL is shut down, the origin and the purpose of the godlike monolith
is said to be “still a total mystery.” The double meaning is there – mystery t in the religious/metaphysical sense, something that is unable
to be known by human means. Likewise, in this movie, our professor seeks a truth that is beyond his means to know. At some point he is told …
and don’t quote me … I think I got this right …. If I’m wrong let me know, but don’t tell my friends … something to the effect of: he is
failing to see the mystery.
A Serious Man
is a serious film, but not an entirely lovable one. It starts as interesting weirdness,
begins to repeats its “no good deed goes unpunished” cycle until it reaches a point of oversaturation. On top of that, it relies twice on
marijuana as an engine for comedy. That’s just a wee-bit overplayed. Nevertheless, it would be intellectually dishonest to give this film
anything but the highest recommendation.
kevinbowen @ stageandcinema.com