This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

What Does this Movie Mean? “A Serious Man” (2009)

I’ve really gotten sucked into blogging about politics for the last several weeks, so this Friday, I decided to do something fun. Every time my husband and I finish watching a “deep” movie, he turns to me and asks: “Okay, genius, in ten minutes or less: what does it mean?” Since I create these blurbs on a regular basis, I am going to start publishing them. These are not “reviews” per se, but just some thoughts on what I think these movies convey. Naturally, major spoilers follow, so read at your own risk.

A Serious Man (Coen Brothers, 2009)

This is one of the richest, deepest, saddest, most mysterious movies ever made. It is a philosophical and dramatic masterpiece, and interpreting it completely is an impossible challenge. But I’ll try interpreting it a little bit, anyway.

Synposis

Larry Gopnick, a physics professor at a Midwestern college in the 1960’s, suffers a series of bewildering troubles. His wife announces that she wants a divorce so she can marry a neighbor. Because she wants to do so “in the faith” and cannot move in with her future husband out of propriety, Larry and his weird, troubled brother must leave and move into a seedy motel nearby. When his wife’s fiance dies in an accident, Larry is stuck making and paying for the funeral arrangements. A Korean student and his father are hounding Larry to accept a bribe for giving the student a passing grade. Larry’s Gentile neighbor has snatched a piece of Larry’s land. Larry’s children are terrible. Confounded by all these vagaries of life, Larry seeks answers in religion and finds none.

What it means: Somewhere in the middle of the movie, Larry is having a dream in which he is explaining the Uncertainty Principle to his class. The enormous blackboard is covered in formulas and calculations, and when Larry finishes writing everything out, he turns to face the room and says: “Even if you don’t understand any of this, you’ll still be responsible for it on the exam.” This is the key to the whole story. By the end of the movie, three things are certain:

(1) There is a God;
(2) God retains the right to give you a shitty life for no reason, or for some reason you can’t possibly understand, but whatever it is, you are still expected to be a good person upon pain of terrible calamity;
(3) Religion is bullshit, and clergy are snake-oil salesmen who don’t have the slightest idea what they are doing.

Religion is bullshit.

First of all, there is the whole hypocrisy of Larry being thrown out of his own home because his beastly wife wants to remarry “in the faith”. She and her beau have no problem with adultery or betrayal, as long as those are done by the book. In fact, according to them, it’s not even that: religion requires that Larry be thrown out.

And then there are the Three Rabbis. Seeking advice, Larry is first shunted off by the synagogal bureaucracy to see “Rabbi Scott”, a hunchbacked youngster who is hilariously inept at advising his troubled congregant. With no life experience to inform him, and not much brain to go with his ignorance, Rabbi Scott is hung up on ridiculous metaphors involving the synagogue’s parking lot. He vaguely describes the parking lot as a symbol of possibilities and freedom (so many spots to choose from! never mind they are all the same) emanating from God’s benevolence — which goes to show that he is an enthusiastic idiot just getting his feet wet at bullying people with “advice” that’s too vague and general to be useful, and insults one’s intelligence besides.

The second rabbi, Nachter, is a professional fake to Rabbi Scott’s amateur. He’s been doing this for a while, and so he’s shed the giddy enthusiasm that we see in the junior rabbi to become a smug nincompoop. He tells Larry a long, mystery-laden story, the point of which is that there is no point; his ultimate advice is that Larry should stop trying to understand things. This is a perfectly reasonable position for Nachter to take: what better way to rationalize his own incompetence and lack of understanding?

The third, and oldest, rabbi, Marshak, has barricaded himself off from the world behind his massive and ferocious secretary. His office is like a vortex, swirling a great mass of stuff. Notice a curious pattern: religious books are pushed out to the edges, while random curiosities and objects of nostalgia are crowded closer to the desk behind which the rabbi is sitting. And in the center of that vortex, on the desk, is Danny’s confiscated player. The only words we ever hear Rabbi Marshak utter are lyrics from a Jefferson Airplane song, “Somebody to love”:

When the truth is found to be lies
and all the joy within you dies

These are the members of Jefferson Airplane [...] Go be a good boy.

This is the distillation of the wisdom he had collected and analyzed over a lifetime: be a good person; find somebody to love. Nothing else matters, and Marshak, unlike his younger colleagues, is tired of pretending. He is no longer interested in theology. The “truth” has turned out to be lies, and his happiness has ebbed away. His congregants, however, interpret his detachment as a sign of religious enlightenment.

Bovine complacency is NOT the answer.

Throughout the movie, other characters — most notably, Nachter — keep telling Larry that he needs to just accept things as they are and not wonder so much about God’s plans and purposes. Many viewers assume that is the point of the movie, the “message”, so to speak, that it’s designed to convey — and they are wrong.

There is an episode in which Larry is wondering why his neighbor always mows a part of his, Larry’s, adjoining lawn, and Larry’s wife counsels him to just accept it as one of those mysteries of life. Does it matter why he mows our lawn? she asks. Well, actually yes, it does matter: Larry’s neighbor thinks that portion of Larry’s lawn is actually his property. So evidently, simply accepting things as they are is the worst possible way to react.

Early on in the film, Larry and his wife are having an argument about the disintegration of their marriage, in which it is strongly implied that Larry has not had sex with her for a very long time. He apparently accepted their lack of intimacy as a normal thing — even though when his wife mentions it, she can barely contain her rage, a sign that her resentment over their lack of a sex life has been brewing for years — and lo and behold, now his wife has a lover fiance, and Larry has been ousted from his family and his home.

The “message” is clear: if you neglect to tend to things in your life, someone else will. Don’t live your life on autopilot.

God will mistreat you, then punish you.

The end of the film sees Larry falsify a grade for a bribe, and God’s judgement is IMMEDIATE. It is at this point that it becomes painfully clear just how small and transient all of Larry’s middle-class malaise has been up to now, as he is about to lose the two things that matter most to a man: his son and his life. On the grand scheme of things, his crime isn’t even that egregious — but God can and does punish out of all proportion to the wrong. This comes back to Larry’s Uncertainty Principle: you must be good, even if your life is terrible and you don’t know why.

But what about the Prologue?

The Prologue introduces the theme of uncertainty. The married couple may be Larry’s grandparents, and Larry’s unhappiness may be the result of a curse, of sorts. One possibility is that the Gopnik family is infected by the malevolence of the dibbuk (though attacked and driven out, he had initially been INVITED under the couple’s roof, and evil, once invited, is almost impossible to purge). If the old man was not a dibbuk, Larry then is the “third generation” being punished for the sin of murder. On the more symbolic level, there is a contrast between how the husband and the wife think. The wife — devout, superstitious and suspicious — is a stranger to doubt. She stabs a man, convinced that he is an evil spirit, and does not give it another thought; calmly shuts the door and (presumably) goes to bed. It is her husband who agonizes over the whole thing. Having intelligence and an inquisitive mind is supposed to help us find answers to the very meaning of existence — but no, it is ignorance and stupidity that lead to confidence and calm, while analytic thinking brings with it only uncertainty and unsolvable dilemmas.

Stray observation: we ask the wrong questions and look for answers in the wrong places.

Rabbi Nachter’s “true story” involves a Jewish dentist who discovers Hebrew characters carved into the back of a Gentile’s teeth (he is referred to only as “the Goy”). The characters spell out “help me, save me.” What does it mean? Who made those carvings? Whose cry for help is it? The dentist goes on a long scholarly quest, but eventually gives up trying to find the answer. However, even while seized by the fever of mystery and unable to sleep at night, at no point does he ask the Goy about the stuff on the back of his teeth. The thought does not occur to Nachter or Larry, either. To an outside observer, asking the Goy would be the most obvious step, but those IN the story are blinded by their preconceived notions and assume that, because the Goy is a goy, the inscription on the back of his teeth can’t possibly have anything to do with him. Even though it’s on the back of HIS teeth. Don’t feel smug just yet, viewer: you too fruitlessly search for answers in your life in a way that’s hopelessly handicapped by biases imbibed since childhood. For this reason, we can never understand. Through a glass, darkly; animal shadows in a cave — we can never know the truth or understand God’s plan. Our only role is to follow the rules revealed to us.

Stray observation: Rabbi Nachter’s tea cup.

While counseling Larry, Rabbi Nachter takes countless tiny sips from a fine porcelain cup. Judging by appearance, it is “Lomonosov porcelain” — an example of rare, expensive fine china manufactured by a venerable Russian factory that once supplied all Imperial banquet tables. The cup’s significance is multi-faceted. To some extent, it is a reminder of Nachter’s (and Larry’s) Old World roots. More than that, I think it is symbolic of Nachter’s snobbery and superficiality. His delicate sips and the fine cup give the interview the air of an upper-class European “visit”; you would think Nachter was an aristocrat holding a “toilette”, rather than a clergyman counseling a troubled congregant. How can anyone’s pontificating be any cleverer when done with a cup like that?

Stray observation: “In the faith”?

It is said repeatedly (twice, at least) that Larry’s soon-to-be ex-wife wants to remarry “in the faith”. This is a startling turn of phrase, as in my experience, religious Jews do not use that expression. Rather, if you were talking about an observant Jew wanting to remarry according to Jewish law and custom, you would say that she wants to remarry “in the tradition”. “In the faith” is a Catholic expression, not a Jewish one. If it weren’t for the Coens’ background, I would assume this is an inadvertent error. But, since the Coens are Jewish, the incongruous word choice here is probably deliberate.

But why? Here is the fundamental difference between Judaism and traditionalist Christianity: Judaism emphasizes tradition over faith, Christianity emphasizes faith over rules. In fact, in Judaism, to have faith yet not follow the tradition is considered the gravest possible sin — far worse than going through the motions despite having no faith. According to Christian principles, by contrast, faith trumps all — as long as you believe in Jesus Christ as your savior, anything you do will be forgiven. Judaism’s emphasis on tradition has to do with preserving the Jewish community that’s subjected to great forces of assimilation. You may have your doubts, but as long as you keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, go to the synagogue and live near other Jews, you will probably marry “in the faith” and raise your children “in the faith”, despite not actually being a true believer. As long as tradition is preserved, there is always a chance of a non-believer coming back to faith or at least his children doing so. If you can’t be a perfect Jew, at least live according to Jewish law, and actual faith will likely follow — so the Jewish tradition tells us.

Larry’s wife’s desire to “remarry in the faith” symbolizes the erosion of tradition and thus the death of the Jewish community — the beating heart of the Jewish religion. (Notice, by the way, that all the teachers and staff at Danny’s yeshiva are really old; it’s all geriatric instructors and stoned, foul-mouthed youngsters, another sign that Jewish life as we knew at the turn of the twentieth century is going the way of the dodo.) With the close-knit, supportive community gone, religion is reduced to Mrs. Gopnick’s cold formalism and Rabbi Nachter’s narcissistic ramblings.

Now, don’t you want somebody to love?

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13 thoughts on “What Does this Movie Mean? “A Serious Man” (2009)

  1. Pingback: What Does This Movie Mean? Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo ‘66” (1998) « This Ruthless World

  2. Pingback: What Does This Movie Mean? Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985) « This Ruthless World

  3. Barbara Backer-Gray on said:

    Now I want to see it again. Great insights!

  4. Hi

    I saw this film recently. A lot of the points you make I think are very valid. However, I tend to disagree with one major point you make which also seems to be accepted by a lot of people on internet comment boards and which I think is a total misinterpretation of the Coen Brothers.

    “The end of the film sees Larry falsify a grade for a bribe, and God’s judgement is IMMEDIATE.”

    Viewing the doctor ringing Larry with bad news and the tornado coming towards the school as God’s punishment is exactly the opposite of what the Coen Brothers are saying, in my opinion. Larry was x-rayed at the start of the film, and obviously the doctor was planning on ringing him anyway with the bad news. This would have happened regardless of whether Larry changed the grade or not. Changing the grade DID NOT lead to the doctor ringing Larry with bad news . The two events happening in the sequence they did are mere coincidence. However, we know from Larry’s quest for meaning in his life that he will view the two things as related.

    A lot of the events that happened to Larry in the film are mere coincidences. He is involved in a car crash the same time as Sy is involved in a car crash, and he feels guilty that he survived while Sy died, as if he had somehow caused Sy’s death. In fact, it’s more likely that Sy caused Larry’s crash. Sy caused traffic to slow while he waited to turn into a driveway; Larry crashed because he wasn’t looking when the cars in front of him had slowed down. It’s never made clear that the slowdown in traffic ahead of Larry was caused by Sy slowing down ahead of them and causing a tailback, but by positioning the two incidents in the way they did the Coens are at least suggesting the possibility of it. So while Larry feels responsible for Sy’s death for no logical reason, it’s more likely that Sy was actually responsible for Larry’s car crash. Larry could not know that, of course, but his tendency is to blame himself for everything and seek meaning in random, unrelated events, a tendency which causes him to believe the opposite of what may actually have happened.

    To view Larry changing the grade at the end as having some causal relationship to him receiving bad news from the doctor and even the tornado coming at the end is to make the mistake Larry has made all throughout the film – to try and impose meaning on unrelated events in an attempt to make sense of the world.

    I think the Coens don’t believe in God, at least not a vengeful Old Testament God, and they are merely satirising how a believer like Larry would interpret two unrelated events – him changing the grade and him getting the bad news about his health. It’s a satire of the neurotic, guilt-ridden mindset that 2,000 years of religious conditioning has given him.

    The prologue at the start foreshadows this. Either the visitor is a dybbuk, and inviting him into the home was the start of the curse, or the visitor was not a dybbuk, and stabbing an innocent man was the start of the curse. But whichever interpretation you make of this – he was a dybbuk; he wasn’t a dybbuk – leads to the exact same conclusion – their descendents have been “cursed”. It’s a catch-22. You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. What the Coens are saying, I think, is that if you have the tendency to believe in a curse, you will always find evidence to justify that belief.

  5. Great comments all-round… I guess I’d take the third way between the OP’s reading and Niall’s i.e. there is no way for us or Larry to ‘know’ whether the doctor calling after he’s changed the grade is a sign of God’s judgement or random coincidence. Larry’s essential problem is that he must find meaning, not just in the face of coincidence, but in the face of indeterminacy. That’s why he doesn’t understand that the cat can be both dead and alive at the same time, only the certainty of the mathematics behind the idea.

  6. Just saw the film for the first time tonight…and I’ve enjoyed reading your blog about the meaning and all of the follow up comments. For me, the obvious meaning was made crystal clear in the last scenes: God/religion won’t save you. Simplistic, but that’s what I got from it. I enjoy the Coens’ work–thought provoking.

  7. Interesting analysis, but you fail to address one of the most important parts of the whole movie, THE PROLOGUE, which in my mind is a total summation of the movie and its idea(s).

    You also took elements, like the tea cup, which are a bit too obscure, and decided it had some hidden meaning, and totally missed out on some of the more obvious elements in the film, like the TV antenna, and the closeups of the earpiece (and the portable radio itself). “How does God communicate to us in the world?” asks Rabbi Nachtner. Through mathematics and science (Larry and his brother)? Through pop culture like song lyrics and TV shows? Through natural phenomenon? Through coincidence? You can either believe He does, or He doesn’t. The old man at the beginning of the film is either dead, or he isn’t. You either believe, or you don’t.

    The Judaism, in some ways, is not that important. It’s just the box that holds the ideas. You’re giving too much importance to the box, as colourful as it is. It is a movie about God and faith, and how we come to explain the mysterious in our own ways, rationally or irrationally. It’s not a movie about religion at all.

  8. Remember when Larry is teaching his class about Schrodinger’s Cat? Is the cat dead? Or is the cat not dead? Look at the prologue. What is that story with the dybbuk? Is the man dead? Or is he not dead? The husband says “we are ruined”, because as he admits, he is a “rational man”. The wife is unfazed, because she has faith. Don’t worry, she says. “Good riddance to evil”, as she closes the door.

    Larry tells his Korean student that the examples he gives in class are “just stories”, to help explain. “Even I don’t understand the dead cat.” It’s the uncertainty principle. The Coen’s are using the idea of the uncertainty principle and giving it a Jewish spin, a spin on religion and God and faith. The story of Job. Is God really testing Larry? Or is he just having a really bad month? It depends what you want or choose to believe. Does God speak to us in the world? Or is is all just…?

    • No, no, I get what you are saying. I just disagree with the idea that ambiguity itself is the point of the movie rather than a tool for conveying something else. I’m sorry, but despite the length of your comments, it strikes me as facile.

  9. Niall Byrne – excellent point. Coencidences happen, are interpreted by Larry as having a meaning (“I had a car accident the same time Sy had his? The same instant, for all I know. Is Hashem telling me that Sy Ableman is me, or we are all one or something?”). Niall – you say they definitely don’t have a meaning.

    I’m saying they do and they don’t – both at the same time.

    [My musings on this, my favourite film of all time ever, on my blog - google jeziorki blogspot a serious man.]

  10. Just watched the movie a second time, and I’m so glad to find this blog with all this thoughtfulness, and this timeline of people watching the movie and commenting on it.

    I didn’t see the rabbis as snake-oil salesmen. There were things about them that were irritating, but with their words, they delivered the message that God can’t be understood.

    What -I- saw was that rare portrait of God that’s presented without ego: Larry wants to know what God is up to, and whoever he asks just says there’s nothing to understand. Usually, when you ask people about God, they describe an idealized version of themselves, so for me, there was an unusual sort of purity in the movie (I always see around 100x more optimism in a Coen brothers movie than any critic ever would).

    I do like your point about the last rabbi. He was doing the exact same thing as the kid! Listening to Jefferson Airplane instead of studying. That kid knew all he would ever know about God before he even started to learn.

  11. A second time? This is a movie to see 10, 12 times and still find new meanings and insight. Rabbi Marshak – how is it he knows the names of the members of The Aeroplane? By listening to Danny’s radio? Is he willingly trying to ingratiate himself with the next generation? What does “that kid know about God” – to be a self-centred teen toker? Tough questions that the Coen brothers raise. I guess these things happened to them, to their friends as they were growing up in late-60s Minnesota.

    Of course, we must never contemplate the ending without going back to the beginning – the stetl, the dybbuk. And not forget that the action of this movie was set at the time of the Six Day War.

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