The blind random cruelty of the universe has been detailed in numerous movies, but no filmmakers traffic or delight in the unknowable quite as often as the Coen Brothers. While their films span a massive range of genres and tones, a few elements always shine through: A distinct mastery of time and place, an ability to spin an absurd circus full of vivid characters out of a single instance of bad luck or bad decision-making, and, most divisively, the inconclusive ending. It’s not rare to leave a Coen Brothers film (especially their recent work) scratching your head, and A Serious Man is their most obvious attempt to grapple with the way their viewers react to their enigmatic finales.
Many of the Coens’ endings trend towards the ambiguous, or even plainly dismissive. In Barton Fink, John Turturro’s defeated screenwriter is assimilated into the photo he’s been staring at in the dregs of writers’ block, and Burn After Reading rattles off the offscreen fates of its characters with a hilarious flippancy, perfectly delivered by J.K. Simmons. Their most polarizing ending, however, is undoubtedly that of No Country For Old Men, in which resourceful badass Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is gracelessly cut down offscreen by a gang of anonymous assassins. It’s jarring yet respectable storytelling, retaining the same steely stillness as the rest of the film but losing both tension and momentum as Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) wanders through the bloody aftermath of the film’s plot, wrapping things up with an oblique, beautifully acted monologue.
A Serious Man didn’t immediately follow No Country For Old Men, with the Coens finding time to clear their palettes with Burn After Reading in between, but it feels like a direct reaction to the way that film’s ending was received. It’s also one of the Coens’ most personal and brazenly inconclusive works, set in the 1960s Minnesota where they were raised. The film follows the hapless Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) through a retelling of the book of Job, burying him beneath an avalanche of indignities, including his wife’s request for a divorce, his son’s impending bar mitzvah, and his unstable brother’s tendency to commandeer the family bathroom so he can drain a growth on his neck.
This is one of the Coens’ most specific comedies, a parade of absurdities that draws much of its humor from the simple state of being Jewish in mid-century Middle America, and it’s intricately constructed, with each of Larry’s various hardships closing in on him in admirable harmony. Michael Stuhlbarg also stands out in the league of underappreciated Coens leading men, managing to find sympathy in Larry’s oddly smug brand of frustration and giving a star-making performance. A Serious Man also contains the key to understanding the Coens’ body of work as a whole, nestled snugly within the centerpiece sequence of the film,
The above scene is one of the most dynamic and memorable of the Coens’ filmography, capturing Larry’s desperate visit to Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner). Nachtner advises Larry by regaling him with the tale of a dentist who discovers a Yiddish inscription on the back of a ‘goy’s’ teeth, only to fail to supply much of an explanation to the mystery, evoking Larry’s frustrations. For me, this scene boils down to a single exchange that sums up the film: The Rabbi proclaims, “Hashem doesn’t give us the answers, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” A despondent Larry replies, “Why does He make us feel the questions if He’s not gonna give us the answers?”
This is the Coens making a grand proclamation: We are Hashem, and we don’t owe you the answers. They take this idea further than ever in A Serious Man‘s brilliant and baffling final moments. After enduring a lifetime’s worth of indignities in a mere 100 minutes, Larry finally caves and alleviates his mounting financial difficulties by accepting a bribe from a student. Almost immediately, he receives a phone call from his doctor about some urgent test results (slyly set up in Larry’s first scene), and more ominously, a tornado looms in the sky outside his son’s school as the elderly teacher fumbles with the keys to the storm cellar. Just as the swirling cyclone touches down, we cut to black.
It’s a maddening tease of an ending, making a promise of arguably undeserved comeuppance for the long-suffering Larry, but letting it play out mostly in our imaginations. From the very first scene, a similarly ambiguous flashback to an old Jewish couple being visited by a possibly undead family friend, to the agonizing last, it’s easy to imagine the Coens cackling from off-screen every time they make good on their promise of no answers, especially as the credits roll on the most urgent question of them all. But despite the film ending in a lurch of dawning panic, it still manages to feel satisfying and complete, and that’s a testament to the Coen Brothers’ style.
The key to any relationship is trust, and that extends to the relationship viewers have with their filmmakers. So why trust filmmakers who blatantly proclaim that they don’t owe us answers to the questions they make us feel? Thankfully, the questions the Coens ask are so deeply felt, so passionately explored, that the answers barely matter. A Serious Man joins Burn After Reading and The Big Lebowski in a library of films whose plots are second to the multitude of hilarious moments and characters, all told with fascinating specificity, and even the unsatisfying-by-design No Country For Old Men is a masterpiece of silence of tension.
That’s why we trust the Coen Brothers. Their ability to evoke a time and a place is peerless, and their skill at building characters and plots is effortless, even when it seems hard-fought. The attitude they display in A Serious Man could come off as arrogant if they weren’t expressing it in such a vibrant and entertaining way, and even their most inconclusive ending, which A Serious Man most certainly is, is filled with thunderous purpose, hammering home a thematic point that goes a long way towards summing up their entire careers. That’s why the Coens don’t owe us the answers – because a question doesn’t need an answer when its true delight lies in its asking.