Film Break: “A Serious Man”
There’s already been a lot written about the latest Coen Brothers opus, A Serious Man, and I don’t claim the ability or the insight needed to improve on what has been said by my friends Brandon Fibbs, Alissa Wilkinson, and Brett McCracken. I also recommend Roger Ebert’s four-star rave as essential reading on the film.
However, because I’ve written about the Coen Brothers a few times before, and since I make no secret of my great adoration for their work– I generally consider them to be my favorite filmmakers– I wanted to register my general opinions of the new movie.
A Serious Man has been called their most explicitly theological work, which it is, but don’t mistake “explicit” for easy or direct; this is a subtle and sophisticated piece of work. That said, it’s also bold, even aggressive; it doesn’t just consider theological questions under the surface, but shoves our faces into it and demands that we consider its implications. As Wilkinson writes, it’s the most straightforward portrayal of the Coens’ worldview yet– and exactly what that worldview is is very interesting indeed.
The film has been likened, not erroneously, to a modern-day Job story, but it is not a film that simplistically tackles the question of why good things happen to good people (nor is Job, for that matter). The questions raised here are much more complex than that: A Serious Man is about righteousness, justice, and the concept of what we deserve. It’s a film about men and women seeking to earn the favor of a seemingly unsympathizing God, and its final image– a coda equally as abrupt as that of No Country for Old Men— is a chilling picture of the feebleness and insufficiency of our own best efforts at morality.
It’s also a movie about trying to make sense of a world that seems cruelly unfair– though not, vitally, chaotic or random. The Coens are practical nihilists, perhaps, but they don’t deny the presence of order in the universe, or even of a God. Their position seems to be that God does indeed ordain that bad things happen to us, but that we have no hope of making any sense out of it or making things any easier on ourselves. Meanwhile, the film’s thorough skewering of Jewish rabbis gives the clear impression that the Coens have had bad run-ins with organized religion, which is perhaps part of the fire that burns in this, seemingly their most personal and urgent film.
And it is, in many ways, the flipside of No Country for Old Men— a film about the unflinching, unstoppable presence of evil in the world– but it feels like an entirely different animal. No Country had the ring of a film about world events– terrorism, specifically– but this feels like a very personal project in which the brothers ask the questions that are really close to their hearts. And for all its pitch-black comedy, it somehow feels like a film of great compassion, and also openness; one senses that the Coens are sincerely interested in a conversation about these questions, not simply in shooting down traditional Judaism.
In terms of the craft, what is there to say? I have a hard time seeing how this is anything other than their most accomplished and masterful film, flawlessly and audaciously made on every level. It has much of the darkness of No Country and Fargo, the contemplative air of The Man Who Wasn’t There, and the sinister fable-like quality of Barton Fink. Absent is any of the crowd-pleasing frivolity of O Brother, or even the thriller-ish momentum of No Country, though make no mistake: It’s an extremely funny and surprising movie, not a boring or dispiriting one, and in many ways its black humor feels like a more philosophical extension of Burn After Reading.
Which is to say, it’s another entry for the list of Coen classics, a canon that’s almost starting to feel cluttered with great movies. but this one is both quintessential and also very distinct from all the others– a work of moral and spiritual inquiry that is complex and compelling.