The Coens have made the most plainly and accessibly theological American film in a number of years with A Serious Man.

By theological, I mean to say that it rests in the theological mood, one of pious questioning rather than of dogmaticism or creedalism. Certainly we have seen the rise of the true cinematic powerhouse Tyler Perry whose work is rife with faith, celebration of the Christian tradition, and stirring testifying of the Gospel, but Perry’s work and Christian bookstore oddity Fireproof (starring off-the-deep-end Kirk Cameron) are of the creedal type rather than theological.

The Coens pay homage to their Judaic tradition of ‘wrestling with G-d’, of questioning the One Who Isn’t Obliged To Answer. I for one have always felt more attuned to this stance in life and is in part why I was so attracted to this film.

It is a modern depiction of a ‘Job like trial’ surely, but it also poses the question that arises from the tension in the Tanakh, the Jewish Scriptures. Does the sins of one generation impact the judgment of the next or not?
“…I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,” –Deut. 5:9
“…The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”–Ezek. 18:20

We find this tension immediately after the Yiddish ‘Prologue’ where the editing is done so that we are made to believe that the son and the father are one. The camera trains on close ups of their ears–awakening the audience to ‘listen with their spiritual ears’. The Son (Danny) and Father (Larry) are closely aligned in the film: both are facing hardships and are on a spiritual path–one on his way to Bar Mitzvah the other caught in the labrynth of day-to-day life and the conundrums that accompany it.

Many have found similarities between A Serious Man and the Biblical portrayal of Job.
I would say that the Coens have creatively stepped back from the Job story.
Whereas in Job we are told that Job’s problems are indeed the result of a wager between the Accuser and the Lord, in Larry’s case we never know.
The question of Job is “why do bad things happen to good people?” to which God answers essentially “none of your business! I’m in control around here so quit yer yappin’.”
The question we’re presented in this film is “Can we ever know if God is involved in our lives at all?” and the answer is essentially “nope.”

Whether God is involved or not, you are left in a double bind.
This is set-up in the ‘Prologue’ which is made to feel like an ol’ Yiddish tale from the shtetl was in fact written by the Coens and though they have said in interview that the story has no connection to the film, it plainly does.
The double bind as presented in the Prologue is this:
If the man is truly a dybbuk the family will experience hardship because it is a supernatural curse.
If the man is not a dybbuk, the family will be cursed because they just killed a man.
Bottom line: you’re screwed no matter what choice you make and you’ll never know if God or supernatural influence had any part in it.

This is the double bind of Larry, and I would offer of many alive in contemporary society.
Life seems miserable. Is it God’s doing? Is there something we should change? Do our choices matter? Are we reading meaning into common everyday occurrances to find a ‘something more’?
Whether you believe in God or not, you are given no answers and no solace is found.

In fact, there would seem to be a simplicity in not trying to find the answers. In their previous film No Country For Old Men Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is troubled by the seemingly increasing violence of his world. In the opening voiceover he gives what could be the final words of the film:
“…You can say its my job to fight it [the crimes of Anton Shigur and the evils he represents] but I don’t know what it is anymore. More than that, I don’t want to know. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He would have to say: Okay, I’ll be a part of this world.”**

It is perhaps easier to turn away from the darkness, the realities of the human condition but to do so, by Sheriff Bell’s telling, you’re not a part of the world. Another double bind. You must face evil or turn away from it and be lost to yourself in a new type of horror: isolation, solipsism, passivity, vanity.

The film balances on a hinge point of decision: Larry’s changing of Clive Park’s grade at the end.
Earlier, Larry had told Clive that there were consequences to what occurred in his office. ‘Not just academic. Moral!’
He took the moral highground then, but later succumbed. (This is an interesting pattern in human experience where it is when one is through the hardship that they let their moral guard down–things are going good, ‘somebody up there must like me’.)
It is at that moment that we see the tornado threatening the son Danny.
(Job 40:6, “God answered Job from the whirlwind saying…”Do you think you’re as in control as I?”)

Was it a judgment upon Larry? Or was it coincidence?
The answer won’t come to Larry from God. Will we give it?

**No Country For Old Men Adaptation by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

As an aside, I got a kick out of the three Rabbis we see in the film. The first and youngest is full of zeal and answers. The second is full of words that amount to little. The last and oldest, Marshak who we see in the above clip, wisely intones: “Be a good boy.”