First things first, if you haven’t seen A Serious Man, I would recommend watching it before reading this. If you don’t follow my advice, don’t get mad at me when I tell you that Bruce Willis was a ghost…I’ve said too much…
After I finished watching A Serious Man last year, I was stunned. It was late, I was tired, and although I enjoyed the film I was too confused by the ending and the lack of a resolution to form an opinion. I drove home in a daze and went to sleep not thinking about the film. Then something happened to me which I had never experienced before. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I had pieced everything together. Suddenly the ending made sense and the film had purpose. I am a secular ‘Goy’ but I still don’t know how it took me so long to see that A Serious Man was a retelling of the story of Job.
For the uninitiated, Job is a book in the Torah and the Old Testament. In the book, God tests his subject’s faith by inflicting curses and bad fortune on Job. Job remains faithful to God and is rewarded for his enduring faith. In A Serious Man, God inflicts Larry with similar, but less extreme curses and bad fortune. Then God introduces temptation in the form of the bribe. Instead of Larry’s faith being tested it seems that Larry’s morals are being tested, and unlike Job, Larry fails his test. At the end of the film Larry finally succumbs to temptation and we witness God’s swift punishment in the grim X-ray results and the tornado. As I quickly made these connections I realized I was not going to have an easy time falling back to sleep. I also realized that I loved the film and a second viewing was necessary.
I exchanged emails with fellow ‘Goy’ Kent about the film and we came to the conclusion that the film was loaded with religious symbolism and there could be an entire theology course simply based on the contents of this film. But unfortunately, we are simply not scholarly (or Jewish) enough to have noticed everything this film has to offer. Something as simple as when the camera lingered an extra second on a painting of the Sacrifice of Isaac before showing us Danny again, has great meaning if you are able to notice it.
With a film which embraces ambiguity at every turn, it is not surprising that viewers have differing opinions on the important scenes and characters of the film. This begins with the very first scene. The film opens with a Mitzvah gone wrong which has no concrete tie to anything else in the film. Kent saw this opening scene as the reason for all of Larry’s troubles. He believes this opening featured the ancestors of the Gopniks and their actions created an ongoing, generational curse which was “tied up in religion and witchcraft and imbued with the people stuck in between.” While it is an interesting, I don’t think the two stories are directly tied. I think the Coen brothers used this introduction to set the tone for the movie. I believe this because the introduction follows the same arc as the rest of the movie. Both Velvel and Larry are well intentioned men trying to get by without falling prey to the abnormal circumstances they are surrounded by. Danny’s Bar Mitzvah and Velvel’s mitzvah (good deed) are both followed by a horrible turn of events. Both men fail to act and their stories end when their futures seem completely bleak. To me it seems like the Cohen brothers use the seemingly random introduction to tell the audience ‘this will not end well.’
Possibly the main theme of the film is the uncertainty principle. In his physics class Larry teaches quantum physics and Schrodinger’s Cat. Larry admits that he doesn’t understand the example of Schrodinger’s Cat, but he understands the math behind it. Larry is a man of mathematics, and it is ironic that he was probably drawn to mathematics because he hates uncertainty. In math there is a right and a wrong answer. Larry took the laws of mathematics and tried to apply them to his life and more importantly to his faith. He assumed that if he worked hard and avoided any major offenses then he would be rewarded by God. When Larry found his life falling apart he needed reasons for his punishment. This could be the basis of the ‘theme song’ of the film Somebody to Love. The lyrics that Rabbi Marshak cites are “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies.” This could reflect Larry’s crisis of faith.
The uncertainty principle is represented by two of the best sequences of the film. The money that may have been left by Clive (who is my favorite character of the film) becomes a direct symbol of Schrodinger’s Cat. The back and forth through the language barrier is hilarious and is dripping with the Coen brothers’ love of language interaction. Despite pleading from Clive and Clive’s father, Larry is unwilling to “accept the mystery.” The other amazing sequence is Rabbi Gopnik’s story of the Goy’s teeth. The compelling mini-story combined with a Jimi Hendrix song creates an extremely memorable sequence. Not until my second viewing did I realize it isn’t just a fun story it is also another means to pass along the message of the film: “we can’t know everything.”
In a way, the entire film is in support of the uncertainty principle, when the film ends there are endless questions remaining and not enough clues to answer the questions. For me, the Job realization solved the broad strokes. But the rest of the film has not been so easy to untangle, most likely because it isn’t supposed to be figured out. There are several questions which particularly interest me:
- For a guy who lives in a black and white world, why does Larry seem to have no backbone?
- Who does Larry’s friend at the picnic represent?
- What is meant from Larry getting a sunburn while coveting his neighbor’s wife?
- Was his neighbor the devil tempting him?
Sy also confuses me, several times he is referred to as a serious man while Larry is unable to claim to be one himself. Was Sy, not Larry the serious man? Sy seemed to have good advice for Larry, was he a tool used by God to show Larry tough love? It also seemed possible that Larry’s frenetic dream sequences could have been messages sent from God. The dream sequence of Arthur escaping to Canada was shot in sharp contrast to the tight framing of the rest of the film. Larry’s dreamed salvation was visually heroic and beautiful. So is that what God expected of Larry? As Clive would say, “Very uncertain.”
I now love the ending of the film, the cross-cutting between father and son, done in symmetry to the beginning of Larry’s story was very powerful. But, it seems like the ending would have been even better if they would have left out the X-ray results. The one source of pride that remained for Larry was his son’s successful Bar Mitzvah. Ending the film knowing that Larry’s actions resulted in the possible death of his son is very effective by itself.
There are many ways to interpret this movie. Differing perceptions and reactions to the film point out the fantastic ability of the Coen brothers to make an interesting and complex film. I’m sure there is no right or wrong way to interpret A Serious Man, so we are all best to just take advice repeated throughout the movie and embrace the mystery.