High seriousness and the Brothers Coen do not an immediate marriage make. The first ten minutes of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest effort A Serious Man, far from altering this impression, rather shocks the viewer into remembering how effectively the Coens utilise the mechanics of horror in their best films. Joel Coen started out as assistant editor to Sam Raimi on the comic-horror masterpiece The Evil Dead and the brothers have maintained some of the horror aesthetics on display in that movie, in their own most effective nightmarish visions, such as: Blood Simple, Barton Fink, Fargo, O Brother, Where art Thou? and No Country for Old Men. Alongside their undoubted love for film noir, the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, screwball comedy and the pointed satires of Preston Sturges, the Coens have frequently utilised suggestive imagery, horrific violence, supremely eerie camera angles and lighting and the unsettling soundtracks of Carter Burwell, as only true pioneers of horror, such as Jacques Tourneur, Tod Browning and Georges Franju, could. Where the Coens excel yet further is in the quality of their writing which, whether focused on the verbal or physical, unerringly hits the right mark of wry humour, or encroaching menace. In A Serious Man the Coens are intent on using Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle’ as the filter through which all dialogue and action must pass, thus making the movie their most unsettling experience to date.
The movie opens in the 19th Century, in a Polish Shtetl, with a husband returning to his wife to inform her that he has met a Rabbinical relative in the snow, who helped him fix his cart. The wife is certain, however, that the person in question, Treitle Groshkover (yet another fabulous Coen Brothers character name), died three years earlier and therefore her husband must have come across a Dybbuk (a troubled spirit, either kind or malevolent, that cleaves to an individual in a time of difficulty, or crisis). The husband has unfortunately invited the relative to eat with them and on Groshkover’s arrival the wife sets about proving her suspicions. This opening section of the film is shot in Yiddish, with English subtitling, and plays fast and loose with the commonly held Jewish folk mythology of a Dybbuk. That aside it is a wondefully atmospheric and chilling exordium that sets the tone for the seemingly wholly unconnected events that follow.
The Coen Brothers display a frequent fascination with the visual depiction of orifices, as elaborated in the bowling ball sequences of The Big Lebowski, the schematics of the hula-hoop in The Hudsucker Proxy and the frequent lingering shots of various piercing wounds and punctures in almost every one of their films. A Serious Man actually presents the most startling of all such shots as part of its impressive credits sequence. Jefferson Airplanes ‘Somebody to Love’ (a recurring joke throughout the movie) is played over the opening credits which end upon a black screen. Gradually a small speck appears and expands in the centre of the black screen, taking on the metaphorical import of a birthing canal, or yet another hole in a Coen character’s head. For the briefest of moments it is suggestive of the central spoke on a spinning record deck, but is revealed to be the direct passage from the dark emptiness of the head, down through the ear canal and into the earpiece of a portable tape player, being listened to by Danny Gopnik, the errant pot-head son of the film’s protagonist (although not the earnest man of the title) Larry Gopnik. Danny is in Hebrew school and it should be considered as to whether the nightmarish opening sequence is in fact no more than the overactive imaginings of an otherwise bored teenage boy.
Much like Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers evocation of another earnest Jewish male, A Serious Man appears to be primarily concerned with the questionable state of mind of its central protagonist, when placed under the unremitting trials, stresses and strains of external forces. Larry Glopnik, however, unlike Barton Fink, has no airs or pretensions. He is a Professor of Physics in Minnesota, a family man, living in a predominately Jewish community in the suburbs. The audience first encounters Larry undergoing a regular checkup with his doctor, a sequence that is brilliantly and disorientingly cross-cut with Danny’s classroom mischief. The film already seems hell-bent on reinforcing uncertainty as its primary theme through its formal choices. How does the audience connect the parallel events portrayed? Are they even meant to be connected? How should the pre-credit intro be regarded in relation to what is now being portrayed? All of these questions, and many more, are left hanging, some to be answered, others to have no such luck. The Coens would appear to be positing early in the film the premise that is later espoused by the rather sanctimonious Rabbi Nachtner, namely that our questions are not raised to be answered and that Hashem (God) has no responsibility to his creation, to reveal the methodology of his actions.
Larry Gopnik is such a benign presence within the movie that it seems almost masochistic on the part of the Coens to hang the framework of the narrative upon his unassuming shoulders. Whereas other ‘nobody’ Coen protagonists, such as Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo and Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There, however reluctantly, allow their survival instincts to force them into decisive action, Gopnik throughout A Serious Man strongly decries his ever having done anything. To some degree this is true, as the things that befall him seem primarily to be as a result of his inaction, rather than any impulse, or volition, on his part. In talking about this project the Coens have described it as their take on the Book of Job and Gopnik seems to endure his fair share of torments with quiet torpidness. First of all he is confronted by the inscrutably direct deviousness of a dissatisfied Korean student, who seems to have thoroughly understood how Heisenberg’s principle should be applied to actual human interaction, even if he sucks at the maths. Then there is the small matter of Sy Abelman, a widower of three years (another source of wry Coen humour), who appears to be far more aware of the condition of Larry’s marriage than Larry is himself. Gopnik’s living purgatory is fleshed out by the persistent and unrestrained selfishness of Larry’s son and daughter, the indefinite stay of Larry’s mentally unstable, goiter-draining, maths whizz of a brother (wonderfully portrayed by Richard Kind), the surly gun-toting NRA survivalists who live next door and seem to be under the impression that more of the lawn is actually theirs than they are truly entitled to, the tongue-tied yet recklessly verbal Dean of the faculty who creates a pervasive sense of paranoia in every reassurance of tenure, the rather too liberal, middle-aged housewife whose recreational activities involve pot-smoking and naturism, the friendly, but high-fee charging legal representation that Larry takes on initially to help with his unwanted divorce proceedings, and most disturbingly of all the Columbia Records Store that Larry’s son has joined and whom now hound Larry for the cost of records that he has no idea about.
Intriguingly, throughout the movie Larry is heard to be asking questions. Questions of his family, questions of his work colleagues, questions of Rabbis, questions of his legal representation, yet not once in the entire film does he actually receive, what he considers to be, an adequate answer. More often than not his family ignores him, leaving him in a seemingly perpetual state of catch-up. Whilst the Rabbis, lawyers and work colleagues merely give him an assortment of convoluted avoidance statements. The only people in the movie that ever really get to grips with Larry’s enquiries are the various portly, middle-aged, slightly owlish secretaries he comes into contact with, who offer contrite and frequently rebarbative responses, that fail only in the fact that they do not answer Larry’s questions in the manner that he would wish them to be answered.
The smug platitudes and odiously false understanding that Sy Abelman (the ‘Serious Man’ of the title, as designated by Rabbi Nachtner at his service) foists upon the reluctant and unwilling Larry are by far and away the most comic of all the sufferings he is forced to endure. The esteemed voice artist Fred Melamud is superb in the role of Abelman, turning Larry’s cuckolded situation into an opportunity for them to bond, yet proving unwilling to listen to Larry’s suggestions for how the divorce from his wife, Judith, should go ahead. Abelman’s death is yet another of the moments in the movie where the Coens deliberately cast doubt on what the viewer is actually seeing, cross-cutting between Larry and Sy driving to work and the golf course, respectively. The expectation is that they are driving toward some literal or metaphorical collision with one another, however this is simply not the case, although Larry later sees some significance in the fact that both Sy and himself were involved in car accidents at almost the exact same time.
Curiously, the Coens seem to take the theme of uncertainty to unprecedently subtle extremes. The frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Carter Burwell creates a musical score that is often incongruously unsettling and sinister. Furthermore, it proves to be yet another layer of uncertainty to those fans of the Coen Brothers movies, as it strongly resembles the score of their debut work Blood Simple, a film that evokes comparable dread from the most mundane of situations. The score is most significant in the way it isolates sounds such as the scrolling of the yad during a reading of the Torah, or the soft squeaking of a leather chair, by surrounding them with a suspenseful passage of music that breaks into silence. The score is also used to full horrifying effect when underlining the sections involving the Rabbis, denoted visually by a title insert.
The Coens seem to take a certain cruel glee in depicting the domestic horrors of 1960’s Jewish-American life, which lacks the affectionate ribbing of Phillip Roth and strays into the territory of profound disgust. The Gopniks all sit around the kitchen table greedily and noisily slurping their soup. The wise old Rabbi Marshak is seemingly so bored by his own congregation that he refuses to see any adults and only speaks with the Bar Mitzvahed sons of the congregation (leading to the at first sinister and then hilarious cross-examination of Danny about members of Jefferson Airplane). Nobody seems to know what a ‘get’ is, including the Junior Rabbi. The Hebrew school is staffed by an assortment of aged, crusty men, who seem wholly out of touch with reality, let alone their students. The decor and fashions are suitably flock and pastel, whilst the community Larry lives within seems to very much operate along the lines of a modern-day Shtetl. The characters are fundamentally loveless people, with even the seductive, yet almost catatonic, Mrs. Samsky (surely a Coen play on the Dybbuk author S.Ansky), married but seemingly alone. Perhaps the most sympathetic character in the entire film is the most troubled, with Larry’s brother Arthur being unable, or unwilling, to find work and accommodation, getting busted for gambling and also for the solicitation of a rent-boy at the hilariously entitled ‘North Dakota’ club. Yet this sympathy for Arthur, is surely based on nothing more than pity for a fundamentally wretched existence. At times A Serious Man ascends far beyond the misanthropic view of humanity that the Coens detailed in No Country for Old Men. Whereas in that movie the shocking revelation was that Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones’ characters are only divided in the reasons they have for deploying authority, power and violence, here the shocking revelation is perhaps that the Coens see absolutely no revelation to give. The Gopniks aren’t cursed, Hashem has not forgotten them, it is simply that there is either no Hashem worth considering, or perhaps more distressingly Hashem, like the Rabbi Marshak wants absolutely nothing to do with all the Gopniks’ inane questions.
The wonderfully self-contained piece of silliness that Rabbi Nachtner tries to fob off on Larry about a dentist in the community who sees the hebrew letters that spell out ‘help me’ written on the back of a goy’s teeth, seems an almost perfect summation of this stylish exercise in disconcertion by the Coen brothers. Rabbi Nachtner offers this, what we later understand to be pat, tale as an answer to Larry’s straight questioning of what ‘it’ all means. However this answer only provokes the need for further answers to new questions, the last of which involves what happened to the ‘goy’, to which Nachtner responds ‘who cares about the goy’. With A Serious Man the Coen brothers appear as truly serious men, who are more than aware that the most profound and unsettling of topics are most often best approached through the prisms of humour and horror. The rough ride that faith, religion and tradition seems to superficially take in A Serious Man is undermined somewhat by the consideration that if we are to take ‘uncertainty’ as the only truth of existence, then we either have to accept faith as a ‘rational’ reaction to such circumstances, or we have to consider the implications of ‘uncertainty’ as a constant, as surely oxymoronic. This thought should return the viewer to that wonderful piece of pop wisdom that is used as a motif throughout the movie, the opening lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’: ‘When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies’. This is perhaps sound advice to bear in mind when considering the full import of A Serious Man, alongside its questionable prefaced quote from Rashi: ‘Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you’. The Coens are after all serious about one thing in particular – namely, misdirection.
This essay was originally published on July 17th 2010 on my now defunct ‘Imposturous’ blog.