It is no secret that the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, are two of the greatest living directors. There is a reason for that. The Coens are ambitious and even though most of their films deal with nihilism (The Big Lebowski), impotence (Barton Fink), doomsday (No Country for Old Men) and failure (Inside Llewyn Davis), the Coens are filmmakers that try to grasp the enormity of life and the numerous trials and tribulations that come with it. Their secret lies in their ability at poking fun at everything and everybody and getting away with it. Why? Because they know there are no absolute answers. Everything is a farce. A beautiful one. Sure, in Burn After Reading the two wrote and directed a story about conspiracy, secret service, treason to showcase the insanity and the stupidity of those who are convinced of outsmarting other people. That was back in 2008, right after the economic crisis revealed holes and leakage not only in the US system, but worldwide as well. Then, a year later, the two brothers came out with one of their darker, perhaps their most underrated movie to date: A Serious Man. A totally different beast but one that might have been aimed at pointing fingers at those who always want to know one single thing: WHAT’S GOING ON?
It is 1967. A suburb in the state of Minnesota. Enter Larry Gopnik: middle-aged physics professor, husband and father of two, a boy and a girl. Larry’s Jewish like the Coens, and like the Coens in their teenage years, his son is getting ready to become a man by going through a Bar Mitzvah. This involves hours of learning long religious chants in Hebrew. What Larry’s son is going through is exactly what Larry is going through himself. Confusion. An omnipresent state of confusion. However, unlike Larry, his son accepts this state of confusion: he embraces it by memorizing the sound of the words spoken by the rabbi, rather than understanding them. He spends most of his time listening to rock music instead of paying attention to what the teachers teach him in Hebrew school. Smoking weed and gazing at the glaring TV set becomes his habit: a simple way of refusing to understand and oversee the bigger picture, because why should a 13 year old boy worry about so many meaningless things?
Larry, on the other hand, is a man who believes in numbers, who believes in logic and concrete evidence. He believes in Yes or No. Good or Bad. Cold or Hot. That’s it. In a time of such great social change with the Vietnam War in the distant background, cheap sci-fi shows on TV and the power of rock and roll, Larry is incapable of coping with this new reality. Each day he goes through the same routine. Each day he starts from scratch. But then, one day, Hasham strikes upon him with a series of odd and troubling events. His wife decides to leave him for his friend, a snobbish Jew by the name of Sy Ableman. Larry’s ominous neighbor starts building a shed by crossing Larry’s property line. Then, his tenure application is threatened because of hate mail directed at Larry from an anonymous sender. Finally, a Korean student asks him to grant him a passing grade in Mathematics and leaves a bribe on his desk. When Larry tries to confront him about it, the father of the student shows up to his house and threatens to sue him. Larry looks at the man, helpless, and asks if the money on his desk was left by his son or not. The student’s father answers: ”Please. Accept the mystery.”
The mystery. The mystery of what? Larry cannot figure this out. And the Coens keep pushing him into a corner. First by putting him in a car accident, then by killing off his wife’s lover and making him pay for the funeral arrangements, finally by having his brother get into trouble with the law and having him pay for his brother’s lawyer. In other words, everything is going wrong for Larry. But the Coens make it clear enough: it’s Larry’s fault. This poor, clueless sob is bringing all of this on himself. By doing what? By not accepting the mystery. In fact, the only man who Larry can relate to is his own brother, Arthur, a loner who lives at Larry’s place and keeps his own notebook, filled with mathematical schemes and formulas that are meant to solve the ”probability map of the universe.” Arthur’s quest to solve the world has driven him to insanity and physical sickness, and yet, Larry does not realize it. He is too caught up in his own quest, his own personal reasons.
Larry’s visit to the three local rabbis ends with nothing but disappointment. The first rabbi, the junior one named Scott, is not experienced enough to actually give him a reasonable answer. What he does instead is feed Larry with the same worn-out speech about changing perspectives, starting from scratch and as he puts it toward the end: ”You have to see things as expressions of God’s will. […] Just look at the parking lot, Larry.” The young rabbi, unable to really transmit any kind of profound knowledge, relies on precisely what Larry hates about the world – blind belief in something that may or may not be there. These words deepen the cut in Larry’s mind. To a man like Larry, a teacher, a mathematician, what is perspective? Why should perspective change? That is why he goes to see the second rabbi, Nachtner, the more experienced one who is also responsible for organizing Larry’s son’s Bar Mitzvah. This rabbi, as experienced as he is, believes in the power of the parable. The parable he tells Larry is about a dentist who finds himself questioning God’s message engraved on the inside of one of his patient’s teeth. Unfortunately, this parable leads nowhere, and makes Larry even more frustrated. He stands and says: ”It sounds like you don’t know anything!” Finally, the wisest of all rabbis, Marshak, does not even grant Larry a meeting. He shuts himself in his office, like God shutting the gates to his property, and leaves Larry with nothing but a sour taste in his mouth; a taste so vile and putrid that only the magic vision of Larry’s beautiful neighbor, Mrs. Shamsky, will be able to pull away for a short while.
As he enters Mrs. Shamsky’s place, Larry can be considered a simple mortal, finally, a serious man with a serious man’s desire to make love, to cheat and indulge in physical pleasures. The beautiful neighbor offers him marijuana and the two get high together just like Larry’s son with his friends. For a brief moment, Larry is a serious man. Perhaps, that’s all he ever wanted. But the moment does not last long. Once reality hits Larry in the head, he’s gone for good. There are cops knocking on his door, religious ceremonies waiting for his attendance, family matters that are to be taken care of, his tenure that is at risk because of rude anonymous letters, and last but not least, his ultimate quest that needs answers at all costs.
What the Coen brothers are able to create in this movie is a sense of feverish obsession; a kind of obsession that gnaws at every aspect of our lives. This obsession takes different forms in Larry’s life: his creepy neighbor, Sy and his snobbish attitude, the rabbis, his brother’s sickness, the student’s father, the tenure committee, you name it. Through careful direction and beautiful cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins that consists of mostly close-ups and medium shots, the Coens put the audience in Larry’s shoes. Whatever Larry feels, be it a crumbling physical pain or another terrible disappointment, the audience feels it too. As viewers, we are forced to witness a man struggle to find answers to questions that obviously do matter, but perhaps do not need answering. And through their brilliant writing, the brotherly duo play with language and the inability to communicate even in such a tight knit community as the Jewish one presented in this film. The language of Hebrew, the language of the chosen people, instead of being presented as a helpful way of bonding between community members is presented as a barrier that blocks any sort of outside perspective. The world in A Serious Man is so closed, shut-off and isolated from the rest, that its characters are naturally prevented from questioning the larger aspect of life. The minimalistic stylization used by the filmmakers serves one single purpose: to make Larry feel alone. Alone with the questions.
Alone with the mystery.