Summary: A beautiful, complex cinematic fable that forcefully challenges the viewer to examine his or her worldview.
Review: Life is complicated. There’s no easy answers. It’s difficult to separate cause, effect, and random chance. We all need lenses with which to interpret the world, but there’s so many of them to choose from. Cinema, as a lie that supposedly tells the truth, often presents us with a clear worldview that purports to explain every happening within its narrative. What happens when you remove this objectivity and leave the audience and the protagonist adrift in a tumultuous sea of competing perspectives, leading the audience back to their uncomfortable, uncertain lives? You get ‘A Serious Man’, a complicated faux-Talmudic fable and Rorschach test as only the Coen brothers can tell it.
From the opening scene, detached from the rest of the story entirely, to the staunchly ambiguous ending, ‘A Serious Man’ manages to keep us struggling in those murky depths for its entire running time. We’ve never sure whose story is true, or how to process the tragic events and mysterious circumstances that occur outside of the protagonist’s control. ‘A Serious Man’ isn’t a nihilistic movie, per se; it just challenges us with the horrifying possibility that it might be. The important thing is to make a choice.
Because of its unpredictable, confrontational approach, ‘A Serious Man’ is highly suspenseful, arguably to the same degree as their previous film ‘No Country For Old Men’, for suspiciously similar reasons. If a narrative is unsurprising, it is probably unfulfilling. The chaotic nature of a plot, whether introspective like ‘A Serious Man’ or athletic and violent like ‘No Country For Old Men’, stems from its tent-pole philosophy of faith vs. meaninglessness. A screenwriter is expected to satisfy burning questions: Who is who, what happens next, why does it happen, how does it end, and others. When a screenwriter provides us with just enough information to draw logical conclusions, but an equal dose of counter evidence, we are left on a high tension wire between truth and falsehood, the greatest suspense of all.
In this way, the Coens communicate directly with us, like a wise man spinning an instructive fable. The intent of such stories is to provoke a proper ethical response to real-life situations. We are likewise instructed, here, to believe in something. To remain uncommitted is a great error. Time and chance happen to us all, but if we see the world through a focused lens, we can take a measure of control. If you don’t believe, you can’t act.
‘A Serious Man’ is a gorgeous movie. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, well, impeccable. The score plays sorrowful and menacing under Carter Burwell’s hand, and the soundtrack composed of Jefferson Airplane and Hebrew chant is a singular, evocative earworm that keeps the fable running through your head long after the movie cuts to black.
I do like food metaphors. If I were to compare ‘A Serious Man’ to food or beverage, I’d call it alcohol, and something strong, at that. An acquired taste that can cause strange reactions and possibly headaches. It’s damn delicious, though. Very good year.