During the Halloween season, movie fans love to perpetually revisit their favorite horror films – be it A Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday The 13th, Scream, or Hocus Pocus – but it’s also a wonderful time to broaden one’s horizons and think a bit differently about one’s watching habits. Cinematic history is filled with not only a diverse assembly of amazing yet under-the-radar films that deeply embrace their genre roots, but also more subtle explorations that don’t outwardly appear to be of the horror variety, but most definitely are. A perfect example of the latter? Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man.
Released in 2009, the film is widely embraced by Coen fans and critics as a sinisterly hilarious dark comedy heavily influenced by its writer/directors’ Jewish upbringing – and there is certainly no intention in this piece to downplay just how remarkably funny it is. What should be additionally recognized, however, is that the source of that comedy is a kind of sick schadenfreude that comes with watching the life of an innocent man unravel for absolutely no reason. From the perspective of Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik, he’s a guy trapped in a monster movie, and the monster stalking and tormenting him is the Old Testament God.
It Starts With A Literal Ghost Story
Before we further discuss the plight of Larry Gopnik, let’s first address this blatant fact: A Serious Man’s opening scene is a straight-up ghost story. Pulling from Jewish mythology, the vignette tells the tale of a 19th-century Eastern European husband and wife who one night find themselves beset upon a dybbuk – the walking spirit of a man named Reb Groshkover whom the wife recognizes has been dead for three years. Her husband protests and Groshkover denies the claim, but she is steadfast in her belief that her home has been cursed, and she plunges an ice pick into the guest’s heart to prove her point.
But is he really a dybbuk? Groshkover laughs off the stabbing at first, but then he begins to bleed and hurriedly leaves. The husband bemoans that they are ruined, and that once the body is found “all is lost.” The question is left open ended.
The answer doesn’t really matter. Either Groshkover was a malicious spirit whose presence cursed the couple, or the act of murder was committed; either way fate has made a malevolent choice for them. Another way of saying that is God made a malevolent choice for them – which is what makes it an apt prologue for A Serious Man’s main story.
The Story Of Job Without God As A Character Is A Nightmare
A Serious Man is, in all practical purposes, a loose adaptation of the Book of Job from the Hebrew Bible. The story begins as Satan has a conversation with God about one of God’s devout followers, a man named Job, stating his belief that Job only praises the Lord’s name because he has received so much in life – including a beautiful family and great wealth. God permits Satan to kill the man’s children, servants and livestock to prove Satan wrong, believing that Job’s faith will hold strong, and he is ultimately proven correct. Despite losing almost everything in his life, Job continues to praise God’s name.
Analyzed religiously, the story of Job is one about the power and strength of faith – but the whole thing takes on a much different energy when you consider the narrative directly through Job’s perspective. Not having any awareness of godly machinations, he is just an innocent, pious guy who sees everything good in his life rapidly destroyed due to no action of his own. That’s a fucking horror story, and the story of Larry Gopnik.
When we first meet Larry in A Serious Man, he is introduced as a decent and good person – an honest family man with strong morals and a love of physics – but then everything in his world starts to crumble. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) has fallen in love with a family friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), and is demanding a ritual divorce. A failing student (David Kang) tries to bribe him, and then the student’s father (Steve Park) tries to sue him for defamation for accusing him of bribery. The decision to grant him tenure is threatened by a series of anonymous letters. His goy neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) is constantly encroaching on his property. The Colombia Record Club just won’t stop calling. Larry hasn’t done anything to deserve these plagues in his life, and yet he is being plagued. And nothing gets better.
Larry’s search for answers takes him to the leaders of his faith, but their answers do nothing to comfort him or fix things. He is told that he needs to achieve a new perspective on his own life. He is told that “you can’t know everything.” And his temple’s main rabbi is too busy “thinking” to provide council. He’s left spinning in consequence for no act he’s committed, and is provided with no consolation or reason. It’s a waking nightmare interspersed with literal nightmares.
Fear Of Uncertainty And The Unknown
Obviously A Serious Man is heavily immersed in elements of Jewish culture, both religious and social, but also key to understanding the film is the influence of existentialism – a philosophy rooted in the nature of existence and the unknown. Existential dread is defined as the fear that life is meaningless and random, and it’s what’s behind Larry’s breakdown as he tries to figure out why his life is piled around his ankles.
The (intentioned) irony is that as a physicist Larry’s field of study is in part examining uncertainty, and yet as much as he understands it, it doesn’t stop him from being a victim of it. In the circumstance with the student’s bribe, for example, his uncertainty regarding the origin of the envelope of cash on his desk leaves him facing one of two consequences by following his moral code: either he reports that his student tried to bribe him, which results in the student’s father suing for defamation; or he pretends that the money doesn’t exist, and the student’s father sues him for taking a bribe. To borrow a phrase from Jean Paul Sartre’s famous story of hell, there’s no exit, and his recourse is to “accept the mystery” – an ever more maddening endeavor.
At The End, God Proves He Can Be Not Just Randomly Cruel, But Also Vengeful
To take an optimists perspective of uncertainty and chaos, there is also a comfort that can be found in the recognition that nothing matters. Accepting the randomness of life has its own kind of peace in it, because at the very least it’s an understanding of the way things work. There is no reason, but at least you know that.
But to repeat: A Serious Man is a horror movie. So just when everything seems figured out… whoops, there goes the rug.
After spending the whole film proving himself a moral and serious man, Larry receives his bill from attorney Ron Meshbesher, and not being able to afford the cost he capitulates by changing the grade of the student who bribed him from an “F” to a “C-.” What’s the harm, right? If the universe is random, then actions don’t always have consequences.
But Larry is wrong. It turns out that God can not only punish people randomly, but also with vengeance. In the span of a few seconds, it’s suggested both that Larry has some kind of fatal illness, and that his son is going to be killed by a tornado. In classic horror tradition, the movie ends with the deadly antagonist getting the last laugh.
A Serious Man only has one jump scare, and its tone is certainly atypical for the horror genre, but the categorization is still appropriate, and only serves to make the film more fascinating. So as we get closer to Halloween, consider heading over to Netflix and hitting play, because with the right angle on it you’ll find that it is more than appropriate for the season.