Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 1


I’ve received many comments from people who didn’t like the Coen Bros’ A Serious Man because it has “a passive protagonist.”

Well, interesting that folks should bring that up.  A Serious Man challenges the protagonist question in a way I’ve never seen a movie do before, and it’s not just idle observation, it’s built into the structure of the entire movie.  Because A Serious Man does not have a passive protagonist, it has a very active protagonist.  A very active — and very powerful — protagonist.

Unless, of course, it does not.  Which is exactly where the mystery lies.

Let me explain.

Early in the movie, Larry Gopnik, a physics professor, lectures to his class about Schrodinger’s Cat.  The Schrodinger’s Cat idea, which is often misunderstood (even by Larry) goes like this:

In 1935, there is a paper on quantum mechanics that suggests (I’m dumbing it down) that certain subatomic particles are so unpredictable that they can be said to exist in more than one state.  Schrodinger says that’s ridiculous, you can’t have something that exists in more than one state.  To prove his point, he comes up with a kind of satirical thought-experiment.  The thought-experiment is: you put a cat in a steel box, with a death-machine triggered, or not, by the state of one of these unpredictable particles.  According to the controversial paper, the cat could be said to be both alive and dead at the same time — until you looked in the box, you wouldn’t know.

The paradox of Schrodinger’s Cat hovers over practically every event in Larry Gopnik’s life.  His wife is cheating on him, and she is not. A student bribes him to get a better grade, and he does not.  His brother is a mathematical genius, and he is not.  His neighbor wants to have sex with him, and she does not.  Larry doesn’t know anything, and the biggest thing he doesn’t know is why all this trouble is happening to him, which brings us back to the protagonist problem: there is a force, a protagonist, setting the events of the plot of the movie in motion, and there is not. We never really know.  And that protagonist, or not, is God, or Hashem, as he’s called here.  Hashem takes it upon himself, and does not, to torture Larry Gopnik, and the drama of A Serious Man springs from Larry’s attempts to discover the Hashem’s intent, or, for that matter, his existence.  2001 has a protagonist who doesn’t show up on screen, but A Serious Man goes further, and gives us a protagonist who not only doesn’t show up on screen, but may not even be there.  And the screenplay uses that mystery — the last mystery, really, the ultimate mystery — to drive the entire narrative.

We start in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.  A man comes home late at night with his cart, he’s got great news for his wife — he’s met a revered older man, a scholar, Traitle Groskover, on the road and invited him home for a meal.

The wife is not overjoyed.  She has “heard” that Traitle Groskover is dead from typhus, and therefore her husband has invited into their home a dybbuk, that is, a dead man whose body is possessed by an evil spirit.  The husband feels their house is blessed, the wife knows their house is now cursed.  The husband calls himself “a rational man” and is uncertain, while the wife is superstitious and absolutely sure of herself.  So here, in this out-of-the-way shetl in the middle of the night, the twentieth century has arrived: the husband leans forward, toward logic, reason, and rationality, but the wife is insistent upon things that, to our minds, cannot possibly be true.

And there is a moment, when the old scholar shows up, and there’s a knock at the door, when the viewer’s neck-hairs stand up, because the thing outside might be an evil, supernatural creature.  And there, whether you are aware of it or not, the movie has got you: you know, in your early 21st-century mind, there’s no such thing as a dybbuk, and yet part of you absolutely believes — wants to believe, actually — that the thing out there just might be one.

The husband invites the scholar in.  The old man tries to charm the wife, but she’s not having it.  She forces the old man to two tests.  First, when he says he’s not hungry, she accepts that as proof that he’s a dybbuk, since a dybbuk does not eat.  This is, to put it mildly, circumstantial evidence, and is easily dismissed.  Then she forces him to a second test — she scrapes his cheeks to check the growth of his beard.  (She “heard” that the dead Traitl Groskover, transformed into a dybbuk, rose from his deathbed and left the house in the middle of having his face shaved for burial.)

This visit is obviously not going to turn into a pleasant social gathering anytime soon.  How could an innocent, indeed, a reverent old man raise the atmosphere after being subjected to not one but two ridiculous “tests” by an obstinate peasant woman?  Unless, of course, he is not an innocent old man, but is rather an evil spirit, in which case his attempts to laugh off her tests are cagey and duplicitous, and the wife’s tests are actually exposing his trickery.

In any case, the wife comes up with one further test, a rather shocking one — she stabs him, in the heart, with an ice pick.  This final test, like the other two, is, incredibly, inconclusive.  At first it seems like the wife is vindicated (and our desire to see the dybbuk unmasked is fulfilled) — the old man laughs and tries to make light of the situation.  Then he starts bleeding, or so it seems, and gets up to leave.  Either the wife has triumphed by ridding her house of an evil creature, or else she has sent a pious scholar out to his death in the freezing cold.

The narrative refuses to say; it leaves the episode unresolved.  Either the old man is a dybbuk, or he is not (the credits actually list the role as “Dybbuk?”.)  Either the wife is a mean, superstitious murderer, or she is not.  Either the husband is a good man, a “serious man,” for inviting Groskover to him home, or he is a fool for inviting evil into his house.  We don’t know, and we will never truly know, and the question of what is and is not happening informs every plot point of A Serious Man, the best movie of 2009 and the best movie by the Coen Bros.

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17 Responses to “Coen Bros: A Serious Man part 1”
  1. ethan_joe says:

    I believe it’s Hashem. Not that I think s/he’d mind.

    • Todd says:

      Obviously Hebrew is not my first language. My apologies.

      • notthebuddha says:

        If it is hashem, that’s also wonderfully ambiguous. It means “the name” and is used rather than risking addressing Him directly. The only person permitted to speak the literal name would be the High Priest in the Temple before its destruction. The Hebrew word for priest being “kohen”, this parallels the Coens keeping the real answer to themselves.

  2. malsperanza says:

    I think it’s possible to call God the absent protagonist of “A Serious Man,” and it makes for an interesting view of the movie. But the alternative works too, at least for me: that the serious man of the title is Job Larry the nebbish. It’s a matter of longstanding debate, after all, whether Job (and with him all the Jews) is right to suffer God’s nasty whims with passive humility or not–or indeed whether he can do otherwise. No more than the author of the Book of Job can the Coens answer the question of what makes a righteous man. But I kind of like the idea that a good, righteous, serious man (a mensch, a protagonist) might be a total wimp loser. The layers of resonance in that idea are immense.

    It’s often been suggested that the author of Job had some familiarity with the Greek tragedies, especially Euripedes. All that Nemesis. So you could think of the Coens’ absent god as the Antagonist to Larry’s Protagonist. (Certainly Hashem makes a better antagonist than the wife, or the lover, or the false friends and counselors, all of whom are more or less the 10 Commandments with feet.)

    I just saw a very fine small French movie called “Lourdes,” which takes on some of the same issues as “A Serious Man,” and with some of the same sly humor. It’s more direct and less literary, and it’s version of the maybe-absent God is Catholic rather than Jewish. It makes for an interesting comparison.

    • Todd says:

      I only mean “protagonist” in the sense of “who sets events in motion.” In the case of A Serious Man, the question “What does the protagonist want?” takes on a whole new significance.

  3. pbastien says:

    I always thought a serious man was about the main character’s constant search for truth, affirmation and knowledge, and ultimate failure as he lives in a world where reality and truth seem to be in constant flux. Where something contradictory to a previous event will happen not because of inconsistencies in the script or storytelling but because reality is… unchosen.

    Strangely I view this as a sort of weird sci fi movie. The character is an example of certain quantum principals. He is a particle in a state of flux in reality. Where the truth and fact and reality is in constant flux. And yet he is also the observer, who wishes to observe the quantum particle, unaware that choosing to view, to see something will cause the shifting quantum state to collapse and pick a permanent set state, thus altering what is being observed to a point that it is not what what it originally was. Yes thats a theory/law of quantum physics. Whatever you are observing will be changed irrevocably by the act of observing/studying. (note this is how I always thought the reality jumping in sliders worked)

    And yet it is this state of constant flux, this quantum uncertainty is what keeps him safe.

    • voiceofisaac says:

      “And yet it is this state of constant flux, this quantum uncertainty is what keeps him safe.”

      Oh, exactly! I’m getting a little ahead here, but it’s the moment at the end where Gopnik finally takes definite action that triggers the *real* apocalypse to come.

  4. voiceofisaac says:

    Ahhh, I’ve been looking forward to this.

    *cracks knuckles, Atomic Jewish Turbines to speed!*

    I have to admit that I’m very curious to see how non-Jews respond to this movie. For me, this film was full of familiar cultural notes, ESPECIALLY with the personalities of the three rabbis. Oh dear god, I think every Jew on the planet has known those rabbis. And every Jew who’s had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah probably had a flashback or five during the Gopnik son’s BM.

    But for non-Jews, do those scenes still invoke significant meaning? If you’re not nodding your head and thinking, “yes, my rabbi said something very similar that one time, and it made me want to slap him too”, do those scenes still carry as much weight?

  5. Anonymous says:

    “A Serious Man, the best movie of 2009 and the best movie by the Coen Bros.”


  6. mimitabu says:

    nice, i was just rereading some of your earlier coen bros. analyses after watching barton fink on TV the other day. i’d like to see a serious man again… as it stands, i still can’t really see what about it works better on screen than on a page, which makes it kind of a failure of a movie for me. maybe i’m missing something though. i’m also probably just being fickle or capricious, because i’ve liked the entirety of other movies based on “atmosphere” before, which could very well be what i’m missing in this one.

  7. jbacardi says:

    …the best movie of 2009 and the best movie by the Coen Bros.

    Or perhaps not! 🙂

  8. musicpsych says:

    Thanks for this post. I just watched this on Sunday, and at the end, I thought to myself, “Huh,” and then put in the DVD for the Hurt Locker. I liked it, but didn’t love it. This post just made me appreciate the movie more, and the ending makes more sense, in a way (or I at least feel like I’m in on the joke).

  9. curt_holman says:

    I rewatched ‘A Serious Man’ last night, and something I noticed was the fact that Dybbuk? is REB Groskover, possibly connecting him with the three rabbis. None of them provide clear, satisfying answers.

  10. dougo says:

    Huh, given previous write-ups I thought you would have ranked Inglorious Basterds as the best of the year (and No Country For Old Men as the Coens’ best). My opinion is that Up in the Air is the best of the year, but I’m very happy that all three are up for Best Picture (and sad that none of them will win, barring a miracle).

  11. Anonymous says:

    mixed feelings

    There are no such things as dybbuks in the real world. Really, I’m pretty sure to the point of certainty there are no possessed dead men walking around and never were in any century. For the sake of the fable within the movie that sets up the main theme and foreshadows the story set centuries latter of Larry Gopnik, did part of me want to believe the poor old man was a dybbuk and did it look for a second like he might be? I guess. But is Larry Gopnik a wuss that could have dealt with his problems better? Is there a god? No. Was the movie a great movie? I don’t know.

  12. Anonymous says:

    A Serious Man

    You like a movie. Or you don’t. I loved A Serious Man. And never really asked why. I am not a Talmudic scholar, not even a serious man. David Butwin, Leonia, NJ (and native of the Twin Cities which therefore made the movie even a little better)

  13. Anonymous says:

    to be human, or not to being human…..being there

    first off, well done mr. alcott. as a fellow filmmaker i also see this film as a masterpiece, and not a minor one either. for context i must say when i left The Big Lebowski i was already a huge fan of the Coen Bro’s but i felt totally ripped off. i wanted to see that bowling match in the playoffs soo bad i could cry. i also realized, like kubrick’s films, you have to see them repeated to extract all the goodies and that the film is really, at it’s core, all about a lack of resolution. the Dude abides and that means, “whatever”. just don’t spill his white russian man.

    the same theme is offered up here i think. the key line in A serious Man is, “accept the mystery”. followed closely by,” mere summation sir”. both delivered by the token celestials and to some extent the western asiatic proffering to the eastern asiatic a challenge of and to worthy foes.

    as for the protagonist/observer/antagonist/victim conundrum all i can say is that you can either seek balance or justice,engagement or detachment: never both. and those observing either action may declare neither valid and/or both irrelevant depending on viewpoint and personal prejudice/history. heady stuff indeed, but endlessly unknowable and entertaining. great mind candy!

    for my money it’s as good as cinema gets. for the year first place with Inglorious Basterds second, Up third and Up in the Air fourth- i did not see Hurt Locker yet though. My feature doc Un-Natural State will be released this year and it just won a Cine Golden Eagle. I think you’d all enjoy it if you can find it.

    Think on brothers and sisters,

    Big Bad Brad enjoying the new freedoms as we speak.