I saw A Serious Man on this week nine years ago, and I’ll never forget how I felt during its final moments.
The closing sequence captures the enormous dread that sometimes looms over everyday life. It shows how receiving an ominous phone call from a doctor can feel like the universe caving in on you.
I knew that feeling all too well when this film was released in the fall of 2009. I was fresh out of high school and completely unsure of my future. My dad was home after nearly a year in the hospital, but our house was full of its remnants — feeding tubes, Fentanyl patches, etc. Like Larry Gopnik, the hero of A Serious Man, we struggled to cope with a surreal new normal.
One of the Coen Brothers’ best films, A Serious Man follows this meek physics professor as he’s beset by marital, professional and ethical dilemmas amid the morally murky atmosphere of the late 1960s. The film’s Midwestern setting exudes an eerie calm that mirrored the mood of our neighborhood that fall.
As my brother and I sat in the Keystone Art Cinema watching this masterpiece unfold, its mounting tension overwhelmed us. It was as if the stress of the past year had been compressed into 106 minutes.
In the final sequence, Larry adds a medical concern to his ever-growing number of problems as a tornado swirls outside his son’s school. The film abruptly ends during this masterful sequence of suspense. The sharp cut to black left me in a panic. But it was an invigorating panic — an urge to escape and start embracing life as quickly as possible.
Although A Serious Man ends on a bleak note, it’s also oddly life-affirming. By showing that what we have can be swept away in an instant, it made me want to hold on to good times more tightly and not take anything for granted. It also compelled me to stop letting worries prevent me from living in the moment. At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder what the future would hold for me and my family. But, as one of the film’s characters says, I had to “accept the mystery.”
Many Coen Brothers films share that sentiment. The Big Lebowski is largely about going where the wind takes you and warding off negativity along the way. “You can’t be worried about that shit, man. Life goes on,” the laidback Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski says.
In one of the segments from the Coens’ latest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a character utters, “Uncertainty. That is appropriate for matters of this world.” He goes on to experience a devastating loss, but at least his embrace of uncertainty allowed him to appreciate the calm before the storm.
As my mom often says, “Take things one day at a time.” I felt like she was speaking through the Coen Brothers with A Serious Man’s opening title card, which reads, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” I carry that lesson with me to this day.