The Coen brothers, throughout an increasingly acclaimed career, have nevertheless faced frequently the criticism that much of their work is elusive; creative and visually strong, atmospheric, and humorous whether that humour is considered broad, black or satirical, but lacking coherent and sustained themes, convincing character development, and narrative resolution. A Serious Man – with its oblique opening set in a richly atmospheric but historically and geographically indistinct Polish-Yiddish past; and its sudden ending, where earlier reconciliations are thrown to one side as plot elements are introduced and left implying an uncertain and unwelcoming future – has faced each of these related criticisms. In fact it is a film strong in purpose, its central theme precisely that life is elusive, and that the questions we inevitably ask of it will return to us haughtily unanswered or hastily postponed; as though we ask a question down a line expecting a neat response and receive, instead, only a garbled, and therefore disembodied, reproduction of our own voice, our hope persisting only in that something else seems responsible for the garbling.
The opening act of the film establishes this broad theme. A Jewish man named Velvel marvels at the world as he walks home with his horse in the snow, somewhere in what is today South-Eastern Poland – he mentions the Lublin Road and Lvov, now across the border in Western Ukraine. The marvel lies in the beauty of nature; but foremost for this man in the fact that, his cart having upturned on the way home, he was stumbled upon and aided by an elderly gentleman known to him and his wife. This seems to him an occurrence of remarkable serendipity; but his excitement is cut short when his wife, Dora, proclaims the gentleman, Traitle Groshkover, a ‘dybbuk’ – which in Jewish mythology refers to a type of the transmigration of souls (O, rocks!), where a malevolent soul inhabits the body of a person recently deceased. Dora declares that Traitle Groshkover is already dead and mourned.
So Velvel’s framework for understanding is thrown into confusion, violently contested by the opposed framework of his wife. Both frameworks reside in the mysterious and the unknown: the one in a type of coincidence which, in its positive aspects, seems product of something more than chance; the other in the possibility of souls somehow persisting and taking possession of bodies to fulfill evil deeds. The existence of meaningful coincidence is more easily accepted than the existence of dybbuks not only because it is more positive, but because it can be reasoned through in other ways; Velvel suggests that he as a ‘rational man’ should not believe in dybbuks; yet he is palpably frightened at the prospect. When Traitle Groshkover arrives at the couple’s home, having been invited on the road for some soup, the debate ends with Dora plunging a pick into his chest. A circle of blood gradually emerges upon Groshkover’s shirt, and he departs into the dark snowy night. Velvel suggests his body will be found in the morning, and they will be ruined; but Dora is content she has seen off a dybbuk.
Various subservient themes explore the general theme of life’s complex uncertainty and apparent indifference. One of the most prominent revolves around language and sound. The films considers how language often proves insufficient as a tool for communication and understanding; and how words misunderstood or out of their most welcoming contexts are often reducible to mere sounds.
Religion is a significant aspect in the lives of the family A Serious Man contemplates, yet it is a source of confusion more often than clarity. In the early stages of the film, the protagonist Larry Gopnik’s wife, Judith, tells him that she has become close to a family acquaintance named Sy Ableman, and wants a divorce. Taking these two statements, Larry naturally puts them together; but Judith refutes the apparent logic of her own speech by denying any relationship between Sy and her desire for divorce. She explains she wants a ‘get’, without which she will be an ‘agunah’. This is to say that she wants a Jewish ritual divorce, without which she will be considered ‘chained’ to her marriage and won’t be able to remarry within the faith. However, the religious terminology is lost on Larry, who responds with an incredulous ‘What?’ in each instance.
He does not comprehend her, but is still prompted by her when he seeks answers in the shape of three rabbis; only visiting the first two because he is unable to arrange an appointment with the elderly, reclusive, but supposedly eminently wise senior rabbi, Rabbi Marshak. From the two rabbis he does get to see Larry receives worldly advice (from a man much his junior) and suggestive anecdote, but nothing in the way of definitive spiritual guidance.
Concurrently, Larry’s son, Danny, is studying for his bar mitzvah. This involves chanting a passage in Hebrew, which he must learn by heart by the time of the ceremony. Music is a passion shared by father and son, but it doesn’t bring them together: ‘Dem Milners Trern’ by the Yiddish singer Sidor Belarsky provides Larry with some solace and content; whereas Danny listens to contemporary popular music, notably Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’. Danny succeeds in grasping the passage, but he learns it by rote, as a passage of noises rather than as a meaningful piece of writing. Unlike his father, he does get to meet with Rabbi Marshak, after his bar mitzvah. The words the Rabbi proffers bear secular rather than religious meaning: he paraphrases a lyric from the Airplane song, ‘When the truth is found to be lies / And all the hope within you dies…Then what?’; recites the names of the band; returns the boy’s radio, taken by a schoolteacher earlier in the film; and advises, ‘Be a good boy’. In this the rabbi shows a human rather than a spiritual understanding; a strength of empathy which Larry may share for others, but which he finds hard to express.
The figure who he seems to share the closest bond with is his brother, Arthur; but this is an emotional understanding enabled precisely because mental and verbal communication is precluded: Arthur primarily resides in and communicates through a string incomprehensible mathematical symbols, which he sets down in a notebook he calls ‘The Mentaculus’. When Arthur’s physical activities are revealed – he gambles, and is later accused of sodomy – they are further removed from Larry’s world, and he seeks legal aid and is acutely sympathetic in part because Arthur’s life is an embodiment of his own related difficulties communicating with other people.
In his work life, Larry reinforces the film’s central theme in lecturing on the uncertainty principle and Schrödinger’s cat. Travelling to work one day, he is involved in a car accident, which, as he later realises, occurs at precisely the same moment Sy Ableman is killed in a car crash elsewhere in town. A Korean student taking his class, named Clive, is struggling with his course; Larry having failed him on his midterm, Clive fears he will lose his scholarship, and so (we presume) surreptitiously leaves an envelope containing money to encourage Larry to alter his grade. When Larry later calls Clive to his office to discuss this, Clive’s verbal manoeuvrings repeatedly imply the impossibility of knowing another person’s motivations conclusively. Aside from refuting Berkeley by accepting that the letter does in fact exist, Clive denies knowing anything about it; when Larry presses him, the resulting conversation is one of the most telling in the film:
Larry: Actions have consequences.
Clive: Yes. Often.
Larry: No, always! Actions always have consequences! In this office, actions have consequences!
Clive: Yes, sir.
Larry: Not just physics – morally. And we both know about your actions.
Clive: No, sir. I know about my actions.
Larry: I can interpret, Clive. I know what you meant me to understand.
Faced with the obstinacy of his student, Larry at once withdraws his assertion that actions always have consequences; substituting instead the offer that, at least in his office, where he feels he can maintain a degree of control, this chain of cause and effect, action and consequence, will be and remain. When Larry suggests he can interpret Clive’s actions, Clive responds with an apparently gibberish phrase which Larry hears as ‘Meer sir, My sir’. Speaking more slowly, Clive clarifies – he actually said ‘Mere surmise, sir’; and emphasises his point with a ‘Very uncertain’ whilst shaking his head. What was, upon first hearing, an unintelligible sound pattern in fact tersely summarises Clive’s point, and Larry’s difficulty. Larry’s eyes turn away thoughtfully.
After Sy Ableman’s funeral, Danny’s bar mitzvah, Larry winning tenure, and a decision on Clive’s money together provide a sense of things being reconciled, the film ends with two scenes which throw everything into a deeper and darker disarray. Larry, who we see at his doctor’s office early in the film, receives a call from this same doctor who asks him to come to the surgery immediately to discuss his x-ray results. Seemingly serving as a visual metaphor for impending bad news, the final scene of the film shows a tornado making its way towards Danny’s school. A sub-plot in the film has seen Danny owe money to a large boy named Fagle. Fagle chases Danny home on several occasions, too cumbersome and short of breath to catch him up. While the pupils stand outside their school building, in the process of being relocated to the basement of a synagogue, Danny – who now has the cash – calls out Fagle’s name, ready to reimburse him. Fagle, however, is focused on the tornado in the distance, and turns his head to look at Danny with neither comprehension nor interest. Here even the familiarity of our everyday cares, and more, even the familiarity of our own names are disrupted, losing their ability to connect and relate us. Fagle’s name is taken by the wind – a mere passing sound.