Nota bene

If you have not done so already, for heaven’s sake go see the new Coen Bros movie as soon as time allows.  My time is short at the moment for discussion, and I don’t want to spoil any of this altogether astonishing movie, which I believe is the Coens best, which is saying a lot.  In a time when American film seems to be getting worse and worse, the Coens keep getting better and better.  This is their most fully realized, most deeply felt, most openly profound, most deeply mysterious movie.

Analysis of this complex screenplay will have to wait for the DVD release, but I welcome readers to discuss the movie under the fold.  There will be, no doubt, spoilers within, so those who haven’t seen it should probably not venture beyond the stats


21 Responses to “Nota bene”
  1. dougo says:

    Is it a spoiler to mention the title?

  2. Anonymous says:


    it’s only playing on a few screens across the country and i can’t figure out when it’s going to be screening in the boston area. DAMN IT ALL.

  3. craigjclark says:

    Note taken. Of course, since it won’t be playing in my area for a couple weeks, I had to make do this weekend with Ricky Gervais’s The Invention of Lying, which I highly recommend.

  4. moroccomole says:

    Definitely one of my favorite Coen movies, and I’m only sporadically a fan of their work. I look forward to hearing your interpretation of the prologue and what it has to do with the rest of the film.

    • Todd says:

      Well, it all keeps coming back to Schrodinger’s cat. The wife is positive that the old man is dead, the observable evidence proves that he’s alive. He can’t be both, and there is the mystery. It’s as though each scene is a microcosm of the whole movie: there is what the “rational” — or “serious” — mind can observe, and then there are things that fall outside of that. And how does “a serious man” react to things that are irrational?

      • Anonymous says:


        Also, as he leaves, he’s both a Dybbuk (Jewish reanimated corpse) and not a Dybbuk. But either way he’s brought a curse upon the house, as the wife fears, because they’ve either been visited by a zombie (v. bad luck) or the wife has just killed a nice old man. Either way, not so good. But as he leaves, as Todd says, it’s both…

  5. Richard Feynman said …

    … which is reassuring.

    I think the film echoed Barton Fink in many ways, for instance they both had a protagonist who appears it seems in nearly every scene (though Gopnik’s son takes the reins a few times in this film). They both comment on the Jewish-American experience and the endings are similar in more than a few ways.

    The choice of Jefferson Airplane I thought was an interesting choice given that the first two lines reinforce the theme of uncertainty, but the rest of the song is Grace Slick telling us we need to love someone, anyone. Gopnik, eternally in stasis, doesn’t seem to love anyone or anything, except maybe physics. He doesn’t seem to love his wife, reacting not with sorrow but with confusion and frustration when she tells him that she’s leaving him. His children are more chores and obligations than cherished progeny. His brother is nothing but headache. When his subconscious expresses his lust for his neighbor’s wife in a dream, she’s indifferent to him. His relationship with G-d is a series of letdowns. There’s no love in his life, in contrast to his rival for the love of his wife, Ableman, a man who is able to love.

    Also Grace Slick got kicked out of the band when she called a German audience a bunch of nazis. Relevant?

    • Todd says:

      Well, one of the key lines, repeated at least a dozen times by various characters, is “I didn’t do anything.” You get the sense that Larry, in his “life of the mind” (tying it back to Barton Fink has been kind of sleep-walking through his life, that he really hasn’t been paying attention to his wife or his children, or even his work, and only now, now that it’s all falling apart around him, does he sit up and say “Why is this all happening to me?!”

  6. curt_holman says:

    It’s Super-Khabbalistic-Expialidocious!

    I just saw it this morning. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite of their films – on first viewing, the characterizations seem a little cruel and exaggerated – but it’s definitely an example of the Coens at the height of their powers.

    Perhaps due to the influence of this blog, I found myself focusing closely on the recurrence of imagery involving letters and numbers. Seemingly endless, possibly incomprehensible mathematical equations recur through the film. So do letters in Hebrew, from blackboards to pages of the Torah to the sides of school buses to teeth. A letter “G” for Gopnik is on the house’s screen door. What TV show does the son want to watch? “F Troop.” (Does the TV aerial look like some kind of a glyph? It’s a means of receiving messages from the “heavens.”) The Gopnik household allegedly received a copy of the record ‘Santana Abraxas,’ which Abraxas having Greek significance. One of Gopnik’s dilemmas is whether he could change a student’s grade from one letter to another.

    There’s probably a lot of this that I didn’t pick up on, but I did notice that when Gopnik and his brother sit at the motel swimming pool, the brother is obscuring the ‘NO DIVING’ sign so it says ‘NO DIV’ or ‘NO DIVIN’ – “no divinity,” perhaps?

    And the rock singer we hear throughout the film has the first name “Grace.” But is grace more of a Christian thing?

    I wonder if the rabbis correspond to the nightmares – weren’t there three of each?

    • Todd says:

      Re: It’s Super-Khabbalistic-Expialidocious!

      I had forgotten about the letters, but them bringing up the Hebrew-letter-number thing in the Sussman tale made me want to go back and make a note of all the numbers in the movie — the motel-room number, which is way too high for a one-story motel, the Gopnick’s address, the lawyer’s retainer fee, which channel F-Troop comes in on, 4 or 5, and so forth.

      Marshak lists four of the six members of Jefferson Airplane. He stumbles on one: Jorma Kakounen, who happens to be the only Jew of the bunch. Of course, we don’t know if Marshak is really talking about Jefferson Airplane or if Danny is hallucinating that.

  7. Anonymous says:

    God’s not in it…

    Just saw this a couple hours ago… a lot to chew over, for sure.

    Todd, you wrote the following about No Country For Old Men:

    “Chigurh likes to think of himself as a god, but he’s something sadder and more pathetic — he’s a man who likes to go around pretending he’s a god. So Carla Jean refuses to play his game and Chigurh kills her anyway, and then goes outside and gets creamed by a station-wagon in a totally random accident. The man who teases others with his pretensions to chance gets laid low by the genuine article.”

    Would you agree that many of the characters in this movie display the same kind of behavior? Larry’s wife is leaving him, a student is trying to bribe/blackmail him (at the same time!), he crashes his car, and on down the line. And his response to these things, for the most part, is to passively accept them and then blame God for his misfortune… or to at least question why God is allowing these things to happen. Larry and his brother both seek to crack the divine code, so to speak; it’s all part of some equation to them. There must be some reason WHY God would cause/allow all these things happen to them.

    And then, as the movie concludes, we see what happens when God/Nature/The Universe actually does turn it’s attention to you. The unfaithful wife, the bribing/blackmailing student, the possibly threatening neighbor, the various debts… they’re not plagues of locusts or rivers of blood sent by God. They’re caused by typical human failures: lack of communication, lack of trust, envy, greed, spite… the same old song, one might say. At one point, Larry tells his brother “sometimes you have to help yourself” (as opposed to being helped by God), and it’s good advice… advice neither one of them is actually capable of putting into practice.


    • Todd says:

      Re: God’s not in it…

      I think there’s a strong argument to be made that the events plaguing Larry are not only not sent by God, they’re simply the result of him not paying attention to what’s going on around him every day. Everyone else in the movie seems to know what’s going on, but he’s eternally surprised by each new offense against him. Like Barton Fink, Larry “doesn’t listen,” doesn’t pay attention, hunkers down into his life of the mind while real life unfolds all around him. (Maybe that’s why the Coens show the doctor probing Larry’s ears at the beginning of the movie.) He’s surprised that his wife has fallen in love with Sy Abelman, he’s surprised that his daughter wants a nose job, he’s surprised that Arthur is a gambler/sodomist, all things he would have cottoned to if he’d bothered to pay attention to events in his own house. God’s not plaguing him, real life is plaguing him while Larry is off looking for God in physics equations. (He lectures on equations he doesn’t even fully understand.)

      So, yes, while Larry scurries about searching for an answer to his woes, a very Old Testament sort of God casually plans to wipe out the Hebrew school one afternoon. Why? Who knows? Or, as Nachtman says about the goy’s teeth, Who cares? The central question, “Why is this happening?” is irrelevant. It’s happening, and therefore it causes tsuris, and therefore gives us an opportunity to reflect on who we are and what is our place in the cosmos.

      The Polish couple at the beginning of the movie are presented with a dilemma: either the husband has made a foolish decision and invited a dybbuk home, or else the wife as made a foolish decision and allowed her superstitions to supersede what is plainly obvious, that the kindly old man is alive and well. Either way, they are cursed. We don’t know why things happen in a seemingly random universe (which is why so many spend their lives trying to make it less random), but there’s always tsuris.

      • schwa242 says:

        Re: God’s not in it…

        Just saw it, so I held off reading this entry until now. It takes a while for the indie films (if this is an “indie” film, I’m still fuzzy on what that definition is other than “not expected to make so much money”) to play here in the sticks, but they eventually do.

        So, yes, while Larry scurries about searching for an answer to his woes, a very Old Testament sort of God casually plans to wipe out the Hebrew school one afternoon. Why? Who knows? Or, as Nachtman says about the goy’s teeth, Who cares? The central question, “Why is this happening?” is irrelevant. It’s happening, and therefore it causes tsuris, and therefore gives us an opportunity to reflect on who we are and what is our place in the cosmos.

        Not only that, but he’s hit with what I’m guessing is lung cancer, even though a point is very obviously made of him not smoking at the beginning of the film. He does nothing to inflict such a harm on himself so to speak, and is still punished by nature or God or chance anyways. Or perhaps for deciding to take the money and change the grade. After all, this is a Coen Brothers film and there needs to be someone punished for coming across money that doesn’t really belong to them.

  8. tsox says:

    Just saw this movie, thought I might add a little insight in the way of a documentary I saw a couple years ago. Check out this clip between 4:30 and 6:50 explaining Schrodinger’s cat

  9. I’m surprised that no one yet has mentioned the blatant parallels with the Book of Job. We have our tortured soul who is being tormented for no logical reason. God has not forsaken or abandoned him, but he also provides no succor. Our protagonist visits with three individuals who are supposed to help him understand why all of this is going on, and yet none of them are in any way truly tapped in to what God’s will really is.

    In the end, God himself visits in a whirlwind to say, “You can not call on me to explain myself to you. I am not obligated to explain” and at that instant the Coens themselves end the film – without the explanation that the audience is waiting for.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Coen bros.

    Frustratingly passive protagonist, hence boring to watch. Less engaging than Bambi.