Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.
Leave it to the Coen Brothers to tunnel a narrative wormhole from medieval rabbis to Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a nebbish Minnesotan Jew circa 1967 trapped in an endless cursed cycle of indecision and loathing.
A Serious Man crossed existential Hitchcock with Jewish spirituality, mysticism and the Coens’ rigid insistence on entwined rates of mortality and morality.
Here, forces threatening to swallow Larry are inescapably omniscient. But, in his physics-professor parlance, there’s a distinction between understanding physics and knowing math. When we merely speculate on specifics of grand-plan forgiveness and knowledge, only human nature truly guides us.
Serious has light moments a la The Big Lebowski, inescapably Kafka-esque ironies and Jewish faith in-jokes. But its religious dissection feels ecumenical all the way to the Serenity Prayer.
Religion’s crux goes against fundamental human instincts — or curses? — to question, rationalize and nearly compartmentalize everything else in life. But, like monolithic math proofs, ultimate tests are made up of that which isn’t easily known.
The Coens aren’t sneering at anyone. They’re sneering at everyone, even themselves. Serious isn’t lampooning an unquestioning faith in a supreme being. What it does mock, mercilessly and memorably, is the idea that without consulting our own moral compass, the only direction our decisions take us is down — beautifully illustrated by the shocking, damning and hair-raising ending of situational dread.Demanding repeat visits to savor its depth, debate its themes and let its final image sink deeper into the psyche, A Serious Man was one of 2009’s greatest achievements.