The critical understanding of The Coen Brothers’ ‘No Country for Old Men’ often has divided, vaguely, between moralistic versus fatalistic interpretations. Is the killer Anton Chiguhr a human being, and therefore does the film ask us to take measure of his cock-eyed morality? Or is he a specter, a grim reaper for the modern age, a natural phenomenon that operates beyond moral application? How you answer this question creates powerfully different interpretations of the film.
In this debate I have been a fatalist and have always placed an enormous amount of weight on the conversation between the Sheriff and his aging uncle near the end. The Sheriff wishes to retire. He feels worn out by the rise of nihilistic violence. He doesn’t believe it existed in the good old days.
His relative says no, there has always been this sort of violence. The old man then tells the sheriff that death will come for you when it comes for you, and you will have no say in it. To think that you will have a say in the time or method of your own death, he says, is vanity. The Greeks would call this hubris. And hubris carries the implication of arrogance in the face of divine fate.
As a tornado bears down in the final scene of ‘A Serious Man’ – a match and then some for No Country’s much debated ending – it puts this principle into spellbinding motion. Not only will death come when it comes without any knowledge or say, the film argues. The God of this film is completely unknowable, all his intentions beyond understanding, and man’s puny struggles to interpret his way are futile and – yes, that word – absurd. Somehow the Coens have simultaneously created their most Jewish film and most existential film in a single try.
‘A Serious Man’ is a story of stories built upon stories, or more accurately, fables upon fables. In an early scene our dweebish physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) introduces us to Schrodinger’s Cat, a logical paradox that is often illustrated by a dead cat in a box. It’s not enough to understand only the cat thing, he tells a failing student. That part is like a fable of physics. You have to understand the mathematics behind it, he says, because that is the truth.
In fact however, he’s wrong, too. Because mathematics is not the truth itself, but only another form of representation of the truth, another way of placing the vast mystery of the Cosmos into our little finite minds. In a dream sequence we are introduced to a second mathematical proof, that of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which is a mathematical way to prove a philosopher’s point – that everything is uncertain. (Note “mystery.” I’m coming back to it.)
The uncertainty of it all is the continuing theme in the film. Our professor wants to understand why God is allowing his life to fall apart all at once. He seeks answers to his Job-like sufferings (to which he has an anti Job-like reaction). What does God want? Why is he testing me? What am I supposed to do? He and we are treated to several fables – such as the story of the Goy’s teeth – that let us know that, as the saying goes, the mind of God is unknowable and his plan ultimately a mystery.
The Coen Brothers have often been noted for being influenced by Stanley Kubrick, and my understanding of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ dovetails nicely with my understanding of ‘A Serious Man.’ While many take interest in HAL’s human qualities, I am more interested in the supercomputer’s “god-like” qualities. But what I’m really interested is in the way that these qualities do not measure up to the actuality of divinity.
Because the qualities in HAL that we think of as god-like are only our erroneous understandings and projections of godliness, swallowed and regurgitated into finite form.
It is important to remember the final word of 2001 is “mystery.” At the moment after HAL is shut down, the origin and the purpose of the godlike monolith is said to be “still a total mystery.” The double meaning is there – mystery in the religious/metaphysical sense, something that is unable to be known by human means. Likewise, in this movie, our professor seeks a truth that is beyond his means to know. At some point he is told—but don’t quote me on it—something to the effect of he is failing to see the mystery.
‘A Serious Man’ is a weighty film, but not an entirely lovable one. It starts as interesting weirdness, begins to repeats its “no good deed goes unpunished” cycle until it reaches a point of oversaturation. On top of that, it relies twice on marijuana as an engine for comedy. That’s just a little overplayed. Nevertheless, it would be intellectually dishonest to give this film anything, but the highest recommendation.