I didn’t think the Coen brothers could top No Country For Old Men, their Oscar-winning masterpiece (which I wrote about here). But A Serious Man comes awfully close. This is a film unlike anything the Coens have ever done, and yet it fits perfectly into their oeuvre. It’s a film about God, man, and the peculiar way that the two relate. And it’s a film that will haunt and provoke you far after you leave the theater.
Stylistically, Man is further proof that the Coens are among the most masterful directors working in Hollywood today. Few other filmmakers are as skillful at the art of employing editing in the service of suggestion and insinuation. As in No Country, the Coens let much go unsaid in Man… and yet so much is implied. So much is clearly hinted at. The Coens’ impressive restraint and pervasive ambiguity only adds to the provocative, head-scratching, deeply unsettling quality of this film.
A Serious Man, as you’ve probably heard by now, is a sort of modern day Job story. It’s a movie about a Jewish physics professor named Larry Gopnik who lives in 1967 suburban Minnesota with his wife, daughter and son. Larry is an upstanding guy—moral, loving, even-keeled. He doesn’t even like hearing people curse. But inexplicably and tragically, things start going very wrong in Larry’s life. Bad things… one after another. His wife divorces him, a student tries to blackmail him, his brother gets in legal trouble, someone tries to sabotage his tenure, his health might be in jeopardy, etc. As the film progresses, the bad stuff keeps coming, and poor Larry doesn’t get a break.
A Serious Man is a funny film (in a darkly humorous, pitiful sort of way), but it’s also full of important, distressing existential questions. Namely: Why does bad stuff happen to good people? If there is a God, why does he seem so cruel and unresponsive sometimes?
These questions are set against a strikingly Jewish backdrop, mixing a sort of Old Testament monotheistic covenant mysticism with Yiddish and American Jewish cultural tropes. The film opens with a curious, comic/horrific prologue that appears to be some sort of old Yiddish folktale. It has nothing directly related to the film proper, aside from establishing the Jewishness and darkly comic tone from the get go. The prologue also, importantly, establishes what seems to be an acceptance of the supernatural—which lends credibility to the ensuing film’s apparent belief in God-ordained calamity.
When the bad stuff starts happening, Larry goes to talk to the local rabbi to get some insight and counsel about why his life is crumbling all around him. But the rabbis (he ends up talking to two of them) offer Larry little in the way of comfort. One of them tells Larry to “look at things with fresh eyes” and the other regales him with a bizarre story about a dentist who sees a Hebrew message in a patient’s teeth. In another scene, Larry’s son goes to see a very old rabbi who manages only to quote Jefferson Airplane and say “be a good boy.” So much for wisdom and insight from the clergy.
Or maybe “be a good boy” is really all we need to hear. Perhaps, at the end of the day, the “why me?!” cry is simply that of a pitiful sinner who just needs to make better choices.
As much as A Serious Man is about the seeming injustice of calamity befalling a blameless, morally upright man (Larry=Job), there are definitely moments when it seems like actions have direct consequences—that the bad things happening are in fact a punishment for wrongdoing.
The Coens have charted this morality territory before. Many of their films (like No Country, Burn After Reading, Fargo) feature characters who are mostly very nice, normal, moral people. But because they make one or two mistakes, or get caught up in the mistakes of others, they have to pay. So it is in Man. Larry only falters a few times in the film. He peers over at a female neighbor sunbathing in the nude; he tries marijuana; and at the end of the film, he does something small that immediately makes him pay in a big way.
It may not seem fair that such minor offenses justify such massive punishment, but this IS God we’re talking about. Yahweh. Hashem (as Larry calls Him in the film). He does what he wants, and his justice will prevail. Even if it doesn’t quite make sense to us.
The film is rooted in this sort of quintessentially Jewish version of God—a God who is in a love/hate relationship with his chosen people (Jews) but has a propensity to be silent, distant, scary and wrathful. He’s a god who demands sacrifices in order to be approached, obedience in order to be appeased.
It’s almost as if God is a negotiator—that He demands something of us in order to bless us, and that if we hold up our end of the bargain he’ll hold up His. Read Torah, live rightly, “be a good boy,” and God will bless you. If not, watch out.
“But God is not a negotiator,” writes Miroslav Volf in his book Free of Charge:
It is true that Scripture portrays God in ways remarkably similar to that image. In the Old Testament we read, for instance, “If you will only obey the Lord your God … all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God” (Deut. 28:1-2). Yet before the commandments were given to the people of Israel, God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. But it wasn’t to get something out of them. They were delivered for the simple reason that God heard their cries of affliction, kept the promises made to their ancestor Abraham, and through deliverance and faithfulness wanted to manifest the greatness of God’s love in the world… God’s goods are not for sale; you can’t buy them with money or good deeds. God doesn’t make deals. God gives.
The thought of a loving, free-grace giving God is mostly absent in A Serious Man, but it’s fairly understandable. It’s hard to grasp this sort of God when your life is falling apart at the seams for no just reason.
Larry is a physics professor who believes in cause and effect and preaches Newton’s law of motion (every action has a reaction). He assumes that choices have consequences and that the universe corrects itself in a very logical way. He trusts the math. But there are also things in physics that push the boundaries of our intellect (e.g. Schrödinger’s “cat is dead and alive simultaneously” Paradox and the Heisenberg Principle) and require us to admit uncertainty.
Perhaps this is why Larry, like Job, never curses God even through all his suffering and hardship. God, Hashem, is grander than and beyond our intellect, and his actions sometimes defy our understanding. Larry, the rabbis, and everyone in A Serious Man are pretty stumped about what God is actually doing. But they continue to worship Him, fear Him, and pursue righteousness because of Him. Because He is God. And our ability to understand Him doesn’t change who He is.