Trials, Tribulations, and a Movie: An LDS-themed Discussion of the Coen Brothers’ A SERIOUS MAN

A well-known axiom in both life and storytelling states that the matters we find most personal are also the most universal. Whether it’s film, literature, or some other medium, stories with the most specific and distinctive settings and points of view are usually those an audience will find most relatable. In the words of Robert McKee: “An archetypal story creates settings and characters so rare that our eyes feast on every detail, while its telling illuminates conflicts so true to humankind that it journeys from culture to culture.”

A Serious Man, the 2009 masterpiece from Joel and Ethan Coen, is a darkly comic film exploring the nature of God, religious inquiry, and human suffering. Set among a community of Jews living in Minnesota in the 1960s, the film mirrors the Coen’s formative years, arguably making it their most personal film to date. That level specificity brings with it a familiarity and universality that just isn’t present in most of their work, or anyone else’s for that matter.

Mormons can have a hard time grappling with the same issues explored in A Serious Man. We seem to define periods of our lives by the struggles we face. Dealing with trials is the focus of countless conference talks, priesthood and Relief Society Lessons, and Mormon.org videos. Within Mormon doctrine and culture, there are recurring themes about the source and meaning of our mortal struggles. And, let’s be honest, quite often, they are confusing, contradictory or just simply nonsensical.

The same is true for much of the advice offered to Larry Gopnik, the hero of A Serious Man. Larry, a Jewish physics professor, is essentially a Job figure facing a barrage of what Mormons would call trials, all happening at once without mercy or concession. In his suffering, Larry seeks answers from all aspects of his Jewish faith: the doctrine, the traditions, and the community. And, spoiler alert, for the most part, he comes up short.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The film opens with a prologue set in an unnamed Eastern European village, apparently during a harsh winter sometime the 19th Century. A Jewish man returns home and promptly informs his wife he has invited an old friend over for supper. The wife insists that this particular friend is dead and that the person coming must be a dybbuk, a malicious spirit or demon from Jewish mythology. When the friend, whoever he is, arrives, he laughs off the woman’s accusations, so she stabs him in the chest with an ice pick. Bleeding and possibly dying, the old friend – or possibly the dybbuk – walks out of the house and into the cold night.

Oh—and the entire scene is in Yiddish, with subtitles.

Was the husband extending a kindness to his fellow man, or was he cursing his family by inviting in a malevolent spirit? Was the wife doing God’s will by disposing of a demonic personage, or did she commit murder, the worst  of all sins? The answers, including the ultimate fate of their houseguest, are left entirely unresolved.

The movie doesn’t take time to ponder the meaning of the prologue, and, instead, drops the audience abruptly into the trials and tribulations of Mr. Gopnik.

In the early moments of the film, Larry finds out that his wife wants a divorce so she can marry a close family friend. An anonymous antagonist is sabotaging his tenure application. His WASP neighbors are subtly trying to annex part of his yard. His students hate him, and one, a Korean immigrant named Clive Park, is trying to bribe him for a better grade. And, he doesn’t have the money to pay the lawyer handling his divorce and real estate issues. Things just snowball from there, getting much worse as time goes on, particularly when his wife’s would-be lover dies and Larry somehow finds himself obligated to pay for the funeral.

Two other related characters deal with their own form of Job-like suffering in parallel narratives. Larry’s brother Arthur is an antisocial freeloader who has troubles with the law, difficulty fitting in, and a huge cyst on the back of his neck. Larry’s 13-year-old son Danny owes his pot dealer $20, but his funds, along with his portable radio, were confiscated by a teacher at his Hebrew school, forcing him to sprint home from the bus every day to avoid catching a beating for not making good on his debt. Plus, when he gets home, the crooked TV antenna on the roof makes it impossible for him to watch his favorite show.

Larry is rarely bitter about his struggles. Mostly, he wants to know why they are happening to him. Is he being punished? Does God have it out for him? Or is it all just random chaos?

As a physics professor, Gopnik knows more than most about the workings of the universe. But, ultimately, all he really knows is that he doesn’t know anything, as he teaches students in a stress dream:

Larry Gopnik: The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.

Despite his vast understanding of the physical fabric of the universe, he’s unable to make sense of or stave off its wrath and he has no idea why. Yet, like his students and their midterms, Larry is still responsible for living his life, regardless of whether he can figure it out.

Mormons are taught that acquiring knowledge and understanding of the universe beyond the theological is key to their spiritual progression. President Joseph Fielding Smith, for example, declared that “knowledge comes both by reason and by revelation.” LDS scriptures tell us to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118) and that “(w)hatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection” (D&C 130:18).

Yet, how often do LDS teachers and leaders counsel members to seek or rely upon that kind of knowledge when dealing with a spiritual crisis? Would a Mormon typically expect Larry Gopnik’s knowledge of quantum mechanics to help him understand and cope with his trials?

I’d wager not. But, I’m not sure why.

More often, Mormons are told to “lean not unto [our] own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5) and seek guidance or comfort almost exclusively from the Lord, even if that advice seems to contradict other LDS scriptural directives for people to study issues out in their minds before seeking answers from the divine. Reconciling those ideas may not difficult in the abstract, but some find it hard to do so in practice.

For his part, Larry Gopnik is very willing to forego a scientific explanation for his struggles and to find and accept whatever answers God has for him. This leads to what is essentially a standard three-part fable as Larry seeks guidance from the three rabbis at his synagogue.

The junior rabbi tells him to simply change his thinking, gain a new perspective, and all will seem beautiful once again, including the parking lot outside the rabbi’s office window.

Larry is understandably disappointed by that advice, so he meets with Rabbi Nachtner, the senior rabbi, who offers us another seemingly profound and potentially supernatural parable, “The Goy’s Teeth.”

The rabbi tells Larry about a Jewish dentist who discovers a message engraved in Hebrew on the back of a patient’s lower incisors. The message – “Help me, save me” – seems to urge the dentist to take some action, but he can’t figure out exactly what he should do. Larry waits patiently through the rabbi’s story for an answer, only to learn that there isn’t one. There’s no real moral or underlying message to the story. In fact, Rabbi Nachtner seems perplexed that Larry expects any answer or resolution at all. His point, if he has one, is summed after he finishes the parable:

Rabbi Nachtner: Sure! We all want the answer! But Hashem doesn’t owe us the answer, Larry. Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.

I have literally been told the exact same thing in my days as Latter-day Saint. Also, I have given the exact same advice to others. In fact, reminding people that they can’t expect to understand everything on their own timetable is kind of a go-to move among the Mormon faithful. The kicker, of course, is that, for most of us, that conclusion rings true. It’s not a joke or a copout. But, that doesn’t mean it’s satisfying, particularly for those earnestly and desperately seeking to understand their mortal struggles.

That’s precisely how Larry feels about the open-ended lesson, so he makes a worthy effort see the aged Rabbi Marshak, a wise, almost mythical scholar and theologian who, according to his secretary, spends most of the day thinking. As Larry peers through the rabbi’s office, seeing the old man at his desk, he is certain that the answers to all his questions are right there, if only he can get through the door. But, alas, he never does.

But the Larry’s journey for truth doesn’t stop there. Near the end of the film, still flustered by his fruitless search for divine consolation, Larry receives a visit from Mr. Park, the father of the Korean student trying to bribe Larry for a higher grade. Neither Clive nor his father will confirm or deny that he left the money, but they make clear why the money was placed on Larry’s desk and what he must do if he wants to keep it. This minor paradox deepens after Mr. Park threatens to sue Larry either for defamation simply for saying Clive offered the bribe or for taking the money without giving Clive a passing grade. Larry, nearing the end of his rope, tries to point out the contradiction. The father’s reply is simple:

Mr. Park: Please. Accept the mystery.

 

 

Those three words are the closest thing Larry gets to an answer for his all of his questions. But somehow, they actually work. Eventually, Larry embraces not having the answers, and things do get better…for a while.

He attends Danny’s bar mitzvah and watches, with pride, as his completely stoned son recites from the Torah. In that moment, Larry and his wife reconnect with some level of understanding and affection for one another. And, Danny, now a man according to Jewish tradition, is sent to meet with Rabbi Marshak.

 

On the long walk through this wise man’s office, Danny sees the accoutrements of a learned life. There are books and paraphernalia dealing with science, theology, and philosophy. This room is clearly a place where one can find answers to any of life’s questions, religious or secular, natural or supernatural.

After an awkward silence, the Rabbi Speaks:

Rabbi Marshak: When the truth is found. To be lies. And all the hope within you dies…then what?

As the rabbi clears his throat, we realize these words are familiar – they are the lyrics “Somebody to Love,” by Jefferson Airplane, the same song Danny was listening to when his radio – and his $20 – were confiscated in Hebrew class.

The rabbi continues:

Rabbi Marshak: Grace Slick. Marty Balin. Paul Kanta. Jorma…something. These are the members of the Airplane. Interesting.

He then hands over Danny’s radio, and the money is still with it. Virtually all of Danny’s problems are now solved. And, though, at first glance, it appears that the Coens are mocking Larry – and by extension everyone else – for seeking profound answers to existential questions, the wise old sage, utters one last line:

Rabbi Marshak: Be a good boy.

The Coens are known for their nihilistic views about the nature of existence and the influence – or lack thereof – of any divine or benevolent forces. Perhaps A Serious Man really is just another ironic folktale about the meaninglessness of it all. But, at the end of their struggles, the heroes in this particular film do get answers: Accept the mystery. Be a good boy. Not bad advice at all.

Virtually every faith grapples with the question of theodicy, or why a loving God allows for evil and suffering to continue. We all wonder, at one time or another, why bad things happen to good people. More often, in our selfishness, we wonder why bad things – even if, in the global sense, they aren’t all that terrible – happen to us.

The most common answer offered from Mormonism is that “it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11) because we cannot know happiness without misery, nor righteousness without wickedness. That idea is not entirely incompatible with Larry Gopnik’s struggle. After all his suffering, he does seem more able to take pleasure in his son’s rite of passage and he feels greater relief and satisfaction when he eventually gets some promising news about his tenure prospects.

There is also a curiously common worldview within Mormonism where God is somehow viewed as selecting specific individuals for specific trials, not to simply inflict pain, but to help us learn carefully chosen lessons. Therefore, as the formulation goes, we should be grateful for our struggles. Truth be told, the theological implications of this view are horrifying. It essentially answers the theodicy dilemma by saying God not only lets bad things happen, he specifically chooses who they will happen to.

We can skip the catalog of difficulties faced by human beings individually and collectively, from disability to poverty, and from disease to war. The simple story of Larry Gopnik is enough to demonstrate the absurdity of this belief. After seeing his life fall apart, would Larry realistically have found greater affection for God if he grew to understand that God was directly and intentionally responsible for his plight? I don’t know how that could be the case, but if the comments we often hear Gospel Doctrine class are any indication, many Latter-day Saints would argue that, in those circumstances, Larry should be even more grateful.

Oddly enough, this non-doctrinal notion that God singles out which of his children will be subjected to individualized endurance tests is at the heart of the beginning of the Book of Job, which is the part most Mormons tend to skim over due to our refusal to believe that a loving Father in Heaven would spend time making bets with Satan on the faithfulness of his children.

Instead, when Mormons speak of Job, we tend to focus on following his example of patience and longsuffering through the most difficult trials. I would posit – and I think the Coen Brothers would agree – that we should also spend time considering the end of the story when, after Job asks God to explain all of his misfortunes, God speaks from the whirlwind.

The tl:dr of God’s counsel to Job in that moment: Accept the mystery. Be a good boy.

In the brilliant final moments of A Serious Man, God speaks to Larry, Danny, and everyone in the audience in much the same manner, with more suffering and calamity apparently on the horizon and the only comfort coming in the words of the Airplane: “You better find somebody to love.”

 

 

14 comments for “Trials, Tribulations, and a Movie: An LDS-themed Discussion of the Coen Brothers’ A SERIOUS MAN

  1. Martin James
    October 2, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    I don’t know why but the end of that movie struck me as a visualization of “ For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind”. Scared me.

  2. Clark
    October 3, 2018 at 12:12 am

    One of the few Coen films I’ve not seen

  3. Marc Bohn
    October 3, 2018 at 8:18 am

    Excellent Bryan. Although I recall being profoundly struck when I first watched this film, my sense upon reading this is that I may have missed some of its richness. It’s been years and is high time for another viewing.

  4. David Donato
    October 3, 2018 at 8:32 am

    Great read for a great movie. Random thought: for all the personalism we have in church with prophets and scriptures, it’s odd that we don’t usually pit them against each other, like we do with philosophers and scientists. The Catholics do it with early figures. I guess it makes sense that we’re always trying to make it about One Great Plan, but I think we miss some opportunities of strengthening ideas. I like how Judaism can say “we don’t know, we can’t know, that’s fine, move along”.

  5. Bryan Hickman
    October 3, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Marc, this is definitely a movie that benefits from multiple viewings. I was actually flabbergasted the first time I saw it in the theater…then, at the end, I was certain that I’d watched something profound. I just wasn’t sure why.

    I actually went and saw it again the very next day. It’s only grown in my estimation over time. Honestly, some of the ideas and themes became clearer to me as I wrote this post, and I’ve seen the movie countless times.

  6. Clark Goble
    October 3, 2018 at 9:57 am

    David, I do think putting different Mormon figures in conversation with each other happens. Admittedly we don’t have that debate culture that you see develop within Judaism particularly in the post-temple eras. But I think at least in the intellectual tradition there’s a bit more of it than you suggest. Admittedly not as much in the rank and file.

    While I haven’t seen the film I have at least a passing knowledge of Job that inspired it. I confess while I know many see the opening and closing prose sections as problematic theologically, I always appreciated them. Perhaps more even than the main poetic sections that are problematizing them (and that this film sounds like it is mostly inspired by). The whole, “just accept you don’t know” part of Job was always the problem section for me. I can appreciate I don’t know but it seemed quite opposed to my conception of God that we weren’t even supposed to try to find out.

  7. EmJen
    October 3, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    As the name suggests, this is a very male-centric movie. The women are all stereotypes and that’s hard to watch because I kept butting up against “oh, I’m not a man/teen boy, so maybe I’m not supposed to understand it.” If you want a similar movie (although not Coen flavored) that has a very cool Jewish female point of view check out 2017’s The Wedding Plan.

    That being said, I still love this movie, I watched it a few months ago with some of my children and we talked about the idea of God, how we conceptionalize God and what it means for the relationships and selves in our life. The backdrop of Minnesota is just pitch perfect and watching it the first time, I was frightened. The second time I was comforted.

  8. October 3, 2018 at 3:46 pm

    “The Coens are known for their nihilistic views about the nature of existence and the influence – or lack thereof – of any divine or benevolent forces.”

    We may have seen the same Coen Brother’s movies, but you seem to haveviewed them through a very different lense. The Coens’ movies have very clear (often very black and white) views on good and evil. They clearly grapple with questions of the nature of morality and God, but it’s the grappling of “good and evil clearly exist, but I don’t understand why” rather than nihilism.

  9. Stephen Fleming
    October 3, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    I hadn’t read Job all the way through until I taught it for gospel doctrine this year, and it made me think more of this movie. I did try to focus on the middle section and had the class read some of Job’s laments. In church we tend not to talk about feeling lost at times, but lots of the class members said they could relate.

    I think the part with the second rabbi is the best when he says something like “we can’t know everything” and Larry yells back “but you don’t seem to know anything!” And then when Larry asks, “What happened to the Goy?” and the rabbi answers, “What happened to the Goy? Who cares?” Good stuff.

  10. Clark Goble
    October 3, 2018 at 8:32 pm

    Ivan, that’s an interesting point that comes out in an fascinating way in No Country for Old Men. In a certain way their take it akin to what it sounds like this Jobian film is. Cormac McCarthy is arguably nihilistic but there’s a kind of Nietzschean engagement with the nihilism. I wonder how much the end of Country with Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue is akin to the climax of this film. I wonder if the issue is less nihilism than it is the existential engagement with nihilism.

    The frequent Jewish demand to accept the mystery is in a certain sense a very existentialist approach. The mystery is that we don’t have meaning given to us in how we experience good and evil. Now of course existentialism can then take two paths – the more Kieregaardian one or the more Nietzschean one. Not having seen this film I can’t speak to which path the Coens take here. I’m brought to the end of Barton Fink where the protagonist is sitting on the beach – a scene out of an earlier post card – not sure what’s in the box although we have a pretty good idea.

    My guess, having seen a lot of Coen films, is that their particular existentialism is less nihilistic than McCarthy, less tied to power than Nietzsche, and less tied to (or for some overcome by) faith than Kierkegaard. It’s almost as if they acknowledge all of these and leave us in a state of being somewhat unsure which to pick.

  11. Ivan Wolfe
    October 3, 2018 at 9:40 pm

    I have not seen every Coen brothers film, but I have seen most. The Coens are very coy and often engage in misdirection when interviewers try to get straight answers from them about their spiritual beliefs.

    My reading of their films, which I fully admit may be totally wrong, is that they basically gave a thesis statement in their remake of True Grit: “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothin’ free, except the grace of God.”

    I doubt they have an orthodox (small “o”) Christian view of grace, but even their most bleak films allow for moments of unexplained and basically unearned grace – although it’s part of the mystery. The “grace” (if that is what it is or perhaps it’s just plain dumb luck) is as mysterious as everything else.

    As for the film in question, God spoke to Job from the whirlwind. The movie ends with a tornado.

    “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?”

  12. Bryan Hickman
    October 4, 2018 at 8:29 am

    Good points all around, I think. I think nihilist is an over simplification of the Coen’s views. I use it in the post as more of a short hand for…I don’t know…pessimistic agnosticism. And, the nihilist label does get thrown around quit a bit when people discuss their work.

    I don’t think any of their films has ever definitively declared that there is no divine or benevolent forces at work in the universe, but, in most of their more serious films, it’s clear they have doubts about it. And, while some of their lighter movies definitely have classic evil archetypes (Smalls in raising Arizona, the officer leading the manhunt in O Brother Where Art Thou, and the weird janitor dude in The Hudsucker Proxy) I don’t know that the protagonists in those films are “good.” Though they’re likable and funny, they usually tend to be amoral (H.I. McDonnugh in Raising Arizona, Ulysses McGill in O Brother, The Dude). The one exception being Norville in The Hudsucker Proxy — he’s definitely good, though the movie itself is a bit of a parody of the old Capra films, so really, one could argue that his “goodness” is lampooning the “good” in other stories.

    In any event, looking at their more serious films — A Serious Man, Fargo, No Country, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and even Inside Llewyn Davis, they’re not expressing a great deal of hope in the human condition.

    Still, the one time they’ve chosen to discuss nihilism directly, in The Big Lebowski, this was their take:

    Walter Sobchak:
    F***ing Germans. Nothing changes. F***ing Nazis.

    Donny:
    They were Nazis, Dude?

    Walter Sobchak:
    Oh, come on Donny, they were threatening castration! Are we gonna split hairs here? Am I wrong?

    The Dude
    They were nihilists, man. They kept saying they believe in nothing.

    Walter Sobchak:
    Nihilists! F*** me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.

  13. Clark Goble
    October 4, 2018 at 11:36 am

    The whole Lebowski “at least it’s an ethos” line though gets more at that Nietzschean approach to nihilism that I do think you find running through their films. Even in the way they restored the ending of the original book True Grit to their film is I think a kind expression of that Niezschean element. The girl even after losing her arm in this weird snake attack still maintains that grit that effectively overcomes the nihilism in the rest of the film. While in some ways True Grit is the least Coen-like film in their filmography in other ways it is very in keeping with it. Juxtaposing True Grit with No Country for Old Men is interesting precisely because in so many ways they are oddly similar. It’s the approach of the characters to the meaninglessness that ushers the films in that seems key.

    Now admittedly we have to be careful since so many of their films at the same time are parodies – often of particular Hollywood films or myths. So there’s more going on in their films than just this approach to nihilism. Again noting I’ve not seen this film, it is interesting how Job honestly comes off in the Bible as just this type of engagement with both nihilism and fixed meanings. While Job gets discussed a lot in Church it’s interesting how frequently people’s conception of the book is so off. For instance Job hardly is uncomplaining. He’s anything but a stoic in the text. Likewise if we take the original prose as some earlier originary text the later authors are riffing on, we end up with a text kind of akin to the Coens. That is the Coens typically are dancing around classic archetypes or narratives to say something deeper. Job is doing the same thing. Further the Coens, like the book of Job, don’t really give us an answer. They make demands but don’t resolve those demands. Often there’s something remaining that’s disturbing if you think about it much. The one exception might be Intolerable Cruelty – often seen as one of the lesser Coen films but still one of my favorites. There love finds a way and is a kind of happy ending that transcends all the chaos and nihilism. On the other hand were I to summarize all the Coen films I’d probably take the ending to Burn After Reading where we get the “what did we learn here” line. “Not to do it again.”

  14. Carey F.
    October 9, 2018 at 11:04 am

    Bryan — Way to kick it off. Thanks for this!!

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