The Coen Project Part 14: A Serious Man

Probably the closest thing to a horror film that the Coens have yet made, a semi-surrealist American nightmare set in a stand-in for their own Minnesota hometown.

I had never seen A Serious Man, the Coens’ 2009 follow up to No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading prior to watching it for this entry. I expected something lighter than both preceding films, but what I got was probably the closest thing to a horror film that the Coens have yet made, a semi-surrealist American nightmare set in a stand-in for their own Minnesota hometown.

A Serious Man takes the grinning fatalism present in their previous films and puts it in a explicitly religious context. While many Coen films engage with religion on some level, it’s typically just a part of the overall texture of the world or a red herring ancillary to the  primary themes. In A Serious Man, however, Judaism is front and center: the film is about man’s relationship with God, and this God’s causal link or lack thereof to what happens in a person’s life.

The Minnesota of A Serious Man is drawn more from the filmmakers’ real life than the Minnesota of Fargo, but it feels more unreal. With its near-identical houses situated on an endless expanse of flat Midwestern plains, it reminds me of the ghost towns built for nuclear testing. Suburbs like this were probably normal-looking to people who actually lived in them, but in modern cinematic language, they represent of the darker aspects of the post-war American dream. It’s the perfect setting for the waking nightmare that is A Serious Man.


Similar to O Brother Where Art Thou’s use of mythic structure in the form of The Odyssey, A Serious Man borrows a biblical myth, Job, as a guiding narrative template. Minus the happy ending where Job gets all his stuff back. Like in No Country and Burn After, we’re not gonna get a feel-good conclusion.

The germ of A Serious Man was a planned short film based on a real-life rabbi from Joel and Ethan’s childhood, who would hold a private audience with each bar mitzvah kid: “…he was a sphinx-like, Wizard of Oz type character, and we thought that would make an interesting short movie”. Eventually, the Coens expanded the project into a feature script set in a suburban Minnesota Jewish community like the one they grew up in.

The film begins with an apparent non-sequitur of a prologue — an Eastern European Jewish ghost story, with dialogue entirely in Yiddish. A man invites an old friend inside his home to escape the cold and have a hot meal. The catch is that his wife knows this friend to be already dead. She’s convinced that their guest is an evil spirit — a Dybbuk, dead but not dead. She unceremoniously stabs him in the chest with an ice pick, he barely flinches before bolting.

While you could infer that this opening depicts the ancestral source of our mid-century protagonist’s bad luck, the Coens have stated that the purpose of the scene is to frame the story as explicitly Jewish from the outset. I think there may be a little more to it, which I’ll get into later.

Primed by this weirdness, we are plunged into the world of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor whose life is falling apart. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has announced that she wants a get, or Jewish ritual divorce, so that she can marry the insufferable widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Sy and Judith kick Larry out of the house and into the Jolly Roger motel, which Sy remarks is “eminently liveable”. The resulting legal fees are more than he can feasibly afford on his pre-tenure Professor’s salary.

Meanwhile the kids aren’t doing much better — his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is hounded by a bully from Hebrew school to whom he owes twenty dollars for marijuana. On top of everything, Larry has to take care of his homeless brother Arthur (Richard Kind), an odd man who spends most of his time in the bathroom draining a sebaceous cyst.

Larry is baffled by his plight, giving us our signature Coen Brothers repeated phrase: “What is going on?” As a devout Conservative Jew, Larry assumes that God is somehow involved with what is happening, and upon the advice of everyone in his life, seeks the counsel of his community’s rabbis.

The film is divided into sections by title cards, one for each of two rabbis that Larry goes to for “answers”.

Rabbi number one is the young Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), who is trying really hard to be what he thinks a rabbi is supposed to be. He concludes that Larry is “losing track of Hashem” and that his existential confusion is simply a matter of perspective — he just needs see the things that are happening to him as God’s will.

This unhelpful piece of advice is familiar to most people of faith. The same people who tend to give this directive would not describe the objectively bad things that have happened as God’s will or even potentially God’s will prior to their occurrence. Rabbi Scott suggests a situation where you should be able to figure out what God is doing, at least in retrospect. If this seems logically futile, well, try harder.

Larry approaches Rabbi number two after the untimely demise of Sy Ableman, his wife’s intended replacement husband. This rabbi, Nachner (George Wyner), takes a more stochastic approach to God’s intentions. He tells Larry a story of a Jewish orthodontist who finds the Hebrew letters spelling out “help me” engraved on the inside of a gentile patient’s teeth. Convinced that it’s a sign from God, the orthodontist attempts to figure out what it means, ultimately going to Nachner for help as Larry did. So was it a sign, or not?

“The teeth, we don’t know. A sign from Hashem? Don’t know. Helping others? Couldn’t hurt”.

Larry is infuriated by Nachner’s conclusion, which to use a colloquial text expression, amounts to: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.”

Not knowing how or even if God is operating within our lives is a central struggle for any religious person. In Christianity, this topic has been wrestled with by everyone from Saint Augustine to Veggietales. What Larry still doesn’t understand is that we always have to decide how to act, whether we think we have the answers or not.

While only the first two rabbis get title cards, a third rabbinical audience occurs when the newly Bar Mitzvahed and very stoned Danny approaches the ancient Rabbi Marshak. To Danny’s delight, the old man intones the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, and then returns his previously confiscated radio. His advice is concise and actionable: “Be a good boy”.

I want to talk about the physics in A Serious Man, A. because I’m a nerd and I can’t not, and B. because I think the concepts mentioned on screen point to a deeper understanding of what the film says about God. The first physics scene involves a very opaque explanation of Schrodinger’s paradox, which is a thought experiment devised by Erwin Schrodinger to illustrate the logical problems with quantum mechanics back when they were being debated in the 1920’s. If the quantum state of a particle could determine whether a cat lives or dies, and the particle is in a quantum superimposition of those two states, then the cat is both alive and dead. I read this reference as a callback to the Dybbuk of the prologue, a man who may or may not be actually dead.

This leads into a scene where Larry reveals his dependence on the objectivity of mathematics to his understanding of the world as he debates the fairness of a midterm result with a student.

Clive: Yes, but this is not just. I was unaware to be examined on the mathematics.

Larry: Well, you can’t do physics without mathematics, really, can you?

Clive: If I receive failing grade I lose my scholarship, and feel shame. I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.

Larry: You understand the dead cat? But… you… you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing; the stories I give you in class are just illustrative; they’re like, fables, say, to help give you a picture. An imperfect model. I mean – even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.

Larry understands the math, but he hasn’t yet accepted the causal ambiguity at the heart of modern physics.

The second physics-centric scene is one of a handful of dream sequences that occur as Larry’s grasp on the causality of his life begins to crumble. Again in a classroom, Larry derives Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that if the momentum of a particle is known, we can’t know it’s position, and vice versa. Or in Larry’s exasperated wording: “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” As he speaks, the camera reveals a cartoonishly gigantic chalkboard full of calculations behind him. Like his trips to the rabbis, science only leads Larry to the conclusion that the truth is unknowable. Like the cat and the Dybbuk, God’s presence in his life is in a state of quantum uncertainty, both real and unreal. 

But Larry isn’t the only scientist in his family. He stumbles upon his brother Arthur’s notebook, entitled “The Mentaculus”, which contains pages of fantastical numerologic diagrams, symbols, and illustrations. Arthur believes that the Mentaculus is a “probability map of the universe”. While Arthurs’ methods of understanding the world are inscrutable to Larry, they seem to have some functional value — Arthur is banned from an illegal card game because of his unexplainable winning streaks. Still, the cosmic understanding that Arthur has discovered or stumbled upon doesn’t succeed in making him happy — he’s unable to relate to other people, and envies Larry’s personal connections, however broken and dysfunctional they’ve become.

Since it’s hard to form a real conclusion about a film that’s about not being able to form a conclusion, I’ll wrap up with my favorite scene.

 Larry’s son requests that his father adjust the TV antennae on top of the house so that he can watch F-Troop. Larry climbs up on the roof, giving us a bird’s eye view of the suburban environs that stretch out seemingly forever — interminable tops of more or less identical houses, a man watering his lawn, kids riding by on bikes. As Larry tweaks the metal appendages of the antennae, the signals phase in and out — indecipherable messages from far away. The music in this scene gives it a twilight-zone-esque sense of surreality. I couldn’t find the full clip of the scene, but here’s the track from the score:

Stray Observations:

  • This is a great simple explanation of the uncertainty principle, one of the foundational concepts of quantum physics:
  • For the record, the Veggietales episode that deals with the whole bad things happening to good people thing is is entitled The Ballad of Little Joe, and recounts the story of Joseph and the Egyptians in produce-populated Western form. I will go to bat for Veggietales any day. I can’t vouch for their theological nuance, but they were funny and clever as hell — my brothers and I quoted them endlessly growing up. The animation itself a pretty awesome example of working with what you have — CG animation systems at the time couldn’t support naturalistic limbs or simulations, so anthropomorphic vegetables was a way to create animation that looks pretty decent to this day.
  • Another great Coen Brothers interview moment: 

    A fan asks if this film, along with No Country and Burn After, are about the emptiness of American society. Ethan cracks up as Joel struggles to give even a semi-serious answer to this question.

The Coen Project Part 12: No Country for Old Men

No Country is an exceptionally difficult film because it doesn’t even hint at a resolution or solution to the fatalistic pessimism of the story. We’re left to figure out for ourselves whether harsh vision of reality it depicts is true.

I’ve been putting off writing this entry because watching No Country for Old Men never struck me as a refreshing activity for a weekend night. But since I’m anxious to make it to Hail Caesar it had to be done, so I’m glad I was able to work up the energy. The Coens’ Oscar-winning twelfth film is heavy stuff — if the violence doesn’t shake you, the existential despair probably will. While entertaining, it doesn’t give the viewer anything they’d typically want from a movie, like characters whose actions make sense, a happy ending, or an unambiguous moral. Instead, it unflinchingly performs fiction’s most important function: to hold a mirror up to the realities of human life, regardless of how disturbing the reflected image may be.

By the No Country‘s release in 2007 the Coens had proved willing to indulge themselves, playing with their favorite genre tropes and over-the-top dialogue for their own amusement. Look no further for examples than their two most recent films at the time, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. In a sharp turnaround, No Country For Old Men presents the filmmakers at their most restrained, mature, and in command of their craft and creative voices. If Fargo’s success and acclaim secured Joel and Ethan’s ongoing careers,  No Country cemented their place as masters in the canon of film history.

No Country is a direct adaptation of a book, Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same title. This fact didn’t surprise me — while the narrative plays to the Coens’ strengths as filmmakers, I don’t believe they would have necessarily arrived at it on their own. In fact, they didn’t even come up with the idea to adapt the novel: producer Scott Rudin sent Joel and Ethan an as-yet-unpublished manuscript of the book, to which he had just acquired the film rights.

The script was written as a faithful transposition of the source material onto film — much of the dialog is taken verbatim from the book. As Joel described the writing process: “…one of us types into the computer while the other holds the spine of the book open flat. That’s why there needs to be two of us — otherwise he’s gotta type one-handed.”

Like many of the Coens’ best films, the story is closely tied with the surrounding landscape, in this case the same 1980’s West Texas that was explored in Blood Simple.


Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a young Vietnam veteran who stumbles upon the scene of a botched drug deal while hunting in the desert. He snags a briefcase full of cash left behind in the struggle without hesitation, but leaves a surviving man bleeding out in the front seat of a truck. Later that night he decides to go back and help the man, but his compassion is quickly punished when he is spotted and pursued by two other drug dealers. Although he is able to escape, Llewelyn becomes the target of the psychotic cartel hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who sets out to kill Llewelyn and retrieve the stolen money.

The plot then centers on Llewelyn’s attempts to thwart his pursuer, their violent encounters resulting in some the most suspenseful scenes in the Coen filmography. Following the trail of destruction left by the two men is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging detective baffled by the illogical nature of the violence he’s witnessing.

Thematically, the film hinges on the characterization of Anton Chigurh, one of the most terrifying villains ever presented on screen. Equipped with an unsettling haircut and a pneumatic bolt gun normally used to slaughter cattle, he kills not just because it’s his job, but because he seems to believe himself to be an agent of fate. He makes this idea literal in his habit of flipping a coin in order to decide whether to allow people to live or to kill them.

Llewelyn believes that he can fight fire with fire and defeat Chigurh, pushing back against fate. He succeeds in this for a short while, shooting Chigurh in the leg and escaping with only a wounded arm. But soon after, another group of drug dealers kill him while he waits to reunite with his wife in a motel room. By Chigurh’s logic, it didn’t really matter whether he was to one to kill Llwelyn or not. The result was the same — fate still found a way.


Llewelyn’s wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) attempts to retaliate against Chigurh’s bloody crusade with reason instead of violence. When he confronts her in her home, she attempts to convince him that he has the human agency to spare her life in the following exchange:

Carla Jean: You don’t have to do this.

Chigurh: People always say the same thing.

Carla Jean: What do they say?

Chigurh: They say, “you don’t have to do this.”

Carla Jean: You don’t.

Carla Jean reasons that a normal person should be able to walk out the door without killing anyone. But is Chigurh isn’t a normal person — he pulls out his coin to let chance decide instead.

Chigurh: Call it.

Carla Jean: No, I ain’t gonna call it.

Chigurh: Call it.

Carla Jean: The coin don’t have no say! It’s just you!

Chigurh: I got here the same way the coin did

Carla Jean refuses to allow a coin flip to determine if she lives or dies — she wants to prove to Chigurh that he alone can choose. But in Chigurh’s mind, there is no such thing as choosing when everything that leads up to the choice is random. Free will becomes an illusion.

The third character standing in opposition to Chigurh is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who attempts to protect Llewelyn, Carla Jean, and others from the madman’s vortex of destruction by following the rules of police work that he’s practiced for most of his life. But his rules don’t work against a killer who follows no ordinary patterns of criminal behavior. He can’t understand Chigurh, so he can’t fight him. He decides to retire because he feels “overmatched”.  Faith can’t provide him the order that he craves, either: “I always thought when I got older God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t.”

No Country is an exceptionally difficult film because it doesn’t even hint at a resolution or solution to the fatalistic pessimism of the story. We’re left to figure out for ourselves whether the harsh vision of reality it depicts is true.

How can we make sense of No Country’s pessimism in the context of the Coen filmography? An obvious parallel to draw is with the Coens’ very first film. 1987’s Blood Simple is also a violent thriller set in Texas, but the darkness in No Country runs deeper. Blood Simple is about bad choices that cascade into violence, and the basest aspects of human nature that drive us to make those choices. It’s the first in a long tradition of Coen films focusing on stupid people making stupid decisions, sometimes tragically (Miller’s Crossing), but more often hilariously (Raising Arizona).

In No Country, however, we’re not so certain that choices can be made at all. Everything feels inevitable: even Llewelyn’s initial decision to steal the money was made without much reflection on potential alternatives. Carla Jean offers us an opposing view, but her belief in choice was still unable to save her.

Fargo can provide another fruitful point of comparison. On the surface, No Country and Fargo are strikingly similar films: both involve a crime that spirals out of control, a killer on the loose, and a police officer who is left to deal with the wreckage, all set in an unforgiving rural environment. But even though Fargo presents a world of comparable brutality and randomness, it offers us a respite in the form of detective Marge Gunderson. Marge is able not only to survive and defeat the bad guys, but also to retain a sense of optimism and compassion in the face of the darkness surrounding her. This contrasts sharply with Ed Tom, who despite his best efforts fails and gives in to despair. In Fargo, humanity triumphs. In No Country, the best humanity can do is to soldier on.

The thematic content is a lot to parse through, but I’ll touch on No Country’s deservedly Oscar-winning direction by talking a little about this scene, in which Llewlyn faces down Chigurh in a hotel:

It’s the most pure piece of visual storytelling the Coens have ever done. Almost every shot is a micro story beat, especially in the beginning of the sequence: the flashing transponder, the door, the shotgun being pulled from the bag. On top of that, each sound we hear conveys story information. Similar scenes rely on music to cue the audience, but that shortcut isn’t used here — intervals of silence punctuated by perfectly timed noises are that’s needed to build the suspense to a terrifying peak. With this one scene, the Coens beat Alfred Hitchcock at his own game.

The Coen Project Part 6: Fargo

In my mind, I draw a dividing line in the filmography of the Coen Brothers at Fargo, the blood-soaked, comedic take on the police thriller genre set in the filmmakers’ native Minnesota. While my appreciation for the Coens’ earlier work has grown over the course of writing this series, Fargo is the first of a run of three films that are touchstones in my life as a movie-watcher, followed by The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother Where Art Thou. But Fargo isn’t just a personal favorite of mine, it’s one of the greatest movies ever made: a riveting and hilarious examination of the ability of humanity to endure in the face of darkness.

A lot was riding on the release of the Coens’ sixth feature. After three consecutive financial failures, Joel and Ethan needed a hit in order to continue making movies on their own terms. Fargo came through in a big way: it was a relative box-office smash, earning $60 million. It racked up seven Oscar nominations, bringing home both Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress for Frances McDormand’s career-defining performance as police chief Marge Gunderson. The Coens had finally struck a major chord with both the critics and the public, setting themselves up for the rest of their careers.

In many aspects, Fargo resembles the Coen’s first film. Like Blood Simple, Fargo is an unraveling vortex of bad decisions and their violent consequences set in an unforgiving and bleak environment. But unlike Blood Simple, it has a ferociously capable, smart, and moral protagonist in the eye of the storm: Marge Gunderson, the Coens’ first true hero.

In defiance of every screenwriting tract ever published, this protagonist doesn’t show up until thirty minutes into the movie. Before that, the story sets itself up from the point of view of Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy), a perfectly nice Minnesota car salesman. Jerry is in a large amount of debt. Thinking big, he hires small-time criminals Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, hoping to extort a large ransom sum from his wealthy father-in-law (Harve Presnell) and split it with his accomplices. This idea is just as stupid as it sounds, and goes even worse than you’d imagine. When bodies start piling up, Marge is summoned onto the case. 

Like Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, Fargo depends heavily on its locational setting. The characters’ manner of expression is specific to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas, where the culture (and the weather) has more in common with Scandinavia than with New York. Everyone is polite and pleasant all of the time, regardless of their actual feelings. This serves to subvert the police procedural genre in interesting and funny ways. Take this scene, in which Marge questions Jerry in the car dealership. The typical genre cop in this situation would aim to intimidate; “Sir, you have no call to get snippy with me,” is about as rough as Marge gets.

It’s rare to see a woman leading a murder investigation on film, even rarer a pregnant woman. Marge’s condition isn’t portrayed as a burden to be overcome — it doesn’t even get in the way of her police work beyond an eight-second spell of morning sickness: “Well, that passed!”.

Meanwhile, Jerry is too incompetent to safely pull off his nefarious shenanigans. He’s so concerned with the appearance of success (especially in the eyes of his ultra-successful, ultra-masculine father in law) that he bargains with his wife’s life, swindles everyone around him, and ignores his son, all while remaining convinced that he’s a decent guy. He convinces us for a while, too: his “Minnesota Nice” demeanor is just as pleasant as everyone else’s. It takes a while to realize that he’s as much of a villain as Carl and Gaear.

By contrast, Marge’s husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) gives a very different version of American masculinity, one that wakes up at five in the morning to fix his wife breakfast before she heads to a crime scene. Norm and Marge are equals in their relationship. He designs stamps, she puts killers in jail: “Heck Norm, you know, we’re doin’ pretty good”.


Marge isn’t a hero just because she’s a great detective. She’s a hero because of her compassion, patience and utter lack of cynicism in the face of the relentless bleakness of the world around her. “And it’s a beautiful day, ” she reminds the killer in the back of her squad car. Not only does she retain her own humanity, she never for a moment views anyone else as less human than herself, even if she just saw them feed a body through a wood chipper. 

Stray Observations:

  • A paragraph at the beginning of the film states “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.” This is almost completely false. The Coens lifted a few bits and pieces from real news stories in the area, but that’s it. When asked about it in an interview, Ethan said: “…in warning viewers that we had found our inspiration from a real story, we were preparing them to not view the film like an ordinary thriller”. The way I see it, the fiction of the film has already started when we see this text. 
  • I didn’t talk about the scene in the restaurant with Mike Yanagita, one of the most discussed and theorized-over scenes in the Coens’ filmography. But I did find this great analysis of it by comic book writer Matt Fraction.
  • Stand-out moment: the look of utter betrayal an Gaear’s face when Carl suggests they shouldn’t have pancakes for dinner.
  • Steve Buscemi’s best line is heard over the phone in the car dealership: “Things have changed. Circumstances, Jerry, beyond, uh, the acts of God. Force Majeure.”
  • Peter Stormare is exactly what Ryan Gosling is gonna look like in ten years, right?