A Serious Man

Stars: ★★★★

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.

MMM: Miller’s Third Deadly Crossing

James here with Movie Music Monday.

Three from various films of the noir persuasion…


There is no better noir theme in existence than this classic piece for Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’, played here by a talented kid on a guitar, while the original was performed on a zither.


Well, maybe Nat King Cole could contend for it. This is the theme for ‘Kiss Me Deadly’.


It’s difficult to get away from Carter Burwell and his memorable contributions to the Coen brothers’ repertoire. This thematically dissonant theme for the under-appreciated neo noir ‘Miller’s Crossing’ sounds like it could accompany an Oscar bait biopic, and I mean that in the best way possible.

MMM: No Arizona For Old Lebowski

James here with Movie Music Monday.

Three pieces from the Coen brothers’ longstanding collaboration with composer Carter Burwell, representing Burwell’s musical range in conjunction with the Coen’s flexible command of the cinematic language.


‘No Country For Old Men’ is so brutally present that the filmmakers kept the score very minimalist. Only during the end credits do they find occasion to lean on Burwell’s scary, evocative theme.


Ah, ‘Raising Arizona’. Downright joyful.


Of all the colorful villains in the Coen brothers’ canon, the German Nihilists from ‘The Big Lebowski’ are probably the most hilariously pathetic. This fake krautrock-esque piece is Burwell’s diegetic compliment to their characterization, heard on a boombox during the “fight scene” in the bowling alley parking lot.

MMM: Let The Right Godzilla Under The Simple Sea

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Three pieces from random sources today.  They’re all somber in tone.  I gravitated in that direction, so here we are.

Oh, boy.  The ending of Ishiro Honda’s classic ‘Gojira’, scored by Akira Ifakube.  Serious stuff.

Ah, ‘Blood Simple’.  Chilling neo-noir.  The Coen Brothers’ first feature — if I recall correctly — and their first collaboration with Carter Burwell, who showed just as much skill as his creative partners.  This is a very Carpenteresque theme.

Now here’s something somber for you. Johan Söderqvist’s theme for ‘Let The Right One In’ is beautiful. That’s all.