With A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers plow fresh ground and operate on a new subtextual level. The filmmakers loosen their noose soaked in dark humor and seriously contemplate a singular incarnation of loneliness, lobbing thematic molotov cocktails at characters consumed by small contradictions and compromises. The duality between man and faith rests front and center in the retrained evolving tragedy of Physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his crumbling suburban life circa 1960’s Minnesota. The Coens even preface this modern story with a Jewish fable of sorts, jaunting back hundreds of years in a daring sequence of self-righteousness and damnation. The two pieces of this expansive puzzle make for something supernatural, a collision of faith and practicality not seen in the Coen’s work before.
After the wacky irreverence of Burn After Reading, the pristine visuals, slow pacing, and somber underbelly of A Serious Man are welcome. The Coens create an entire community from the ground up, meticulously re-constructing their childhood digs and memories with a certain weighted texture, the intricate details of suburbia pinning down the desire for growth. Larry is helpless in almost every respect, but it’s his indecision that continues to box him in. The Coens focus on disputed property lines, antennas, couches, chalkboards, and wires to illuminate the crisscrossing patterns that spell Larry’s emotional and intellectual destruction, all while framing a community at peace with its inanity.
In the brilliant final moments, A Serious Man turns from a potent character study to a full blown masterpiece of menace and comeuppance, refreshing the idea that good and evil, kindness and selfishness reside side by side in the smallest of actions, be it the change of a grade or the snap judgement of another person. No foreshadowing is necessary in A Serious Man, since the very fabric of everyday existence is steeped in the scripture of despair, and time period has nothing to do with it.