In The Book of Job, one of God’s most gifted creations has his faith tested by the big man himself. Forced to suffer a deluge of hardships and agony, Job must grapple with the existential quandary of why this is happening to him. What is the cause of this misery? Didn’t he live a good life? Wasn’t he a respected member of his community? Didn’t he try to be a serious man?
Such is the difficulty of human existence. We inhabit a space in which its origins cannot ever be made clear to us and throughout time we’ve had to debate philosophies that attempt to make sense of events that could possibly make no sense at all. The Coen Brothers’ excellent new film, A SERIOUS MAN, opens with a prologue that introduces some of the spiritual elements of the film. Staged entirely in Yiddish, a Jewish couple encounter a man who may or may not be a dybbuk, which in Jewish folklore is an evil soul dislocated from another body. Whether the man is or isn’t is unclear, and the Coen’s aren’t interested in definitive answers. The answers, in this film, are less the focus than the questions.
We soon turn to Larry Gopnik, a math professor on the verge of tenure living in 1960s Minnesota. His wife is leaving him for a family friend (the scene-stealing Fred Melamed), his son doesn’t pay attention in Hebrew School and gets high while preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and his brother is occupying his sofa while constantly draining his sebaceous cyst and refusing to look for a job. In addition, a student that Larry is failing attempts to bribe him for a passing grade and even threatens to sue him. Larry has a difficult time addressing these problems or finding adequate reasons why they are happening to him. Much like Job consulted his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, Larry looks for guidance from three distinctly different Rabbis. The Rabbis offer wise, but seemingly useless advice which is of little help to Larry’s immediate pain and larger philosophical questions. Even when Larry climbs his roof in order to manipulate his TV antenna to get better reception, he is literally looking to the skies for some clarity.
As always with the Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins, A SERIOUS MAN is impeccably filmed and composed. Close-ups of the ears and mouth pull us literally inside the characters. The Coens alter the contrast to give the film’s color palette a drained look which works well in the setting of 60’s Minnesota suburbia. The film also employs interesting uses of perspective, typically when a character is high on pot. Sleight of hand is employed with certain dream sequences which allows the Coen’s to keep the audience continuously questioning the film’s ideas of morality and consequence.
A SERIOUS MAN is the Coen Brothers’ 16th film to date and they remain powerful and uncompromising artists. This is not an easily digestible film, nor does it have much chance for mainstream success with its cast of unknowns. They remain in the elite class of today’s filmmakers with this strong dark comedy of existential dilemma. Just as The Book of Job ends with the emergence of God’s voice in the form of a whirlwind, A SERIOUS MAN ends with its own whirlwind which audiences will be forced to contemplate long after the final credits roll.