In 2007, Joel and Ethan Coen cemented their status as master filmmakers with the bleak masterpiece No Country for Old Men, only to threaten it just a year later with the underwhelming Burn After Reading. These two films typify the two opposing threads of the Coen filmography: jet-black existential thrillers and bouncy screwball comedies. For A Serious Man, released the following year, they took a little from each column and produced a film that is in dialogue with all their previous films as well as the very idea of the “Coenesque.”
A Serious Man is the second film set in the Coens’ native Minnesota. But whereas Fargo’s Minnesota is cold and Scandinavian, A Serious Man takes place at the height of summer 1967 in the largely Jewish suburbs of St. Louis Park. There, mathematics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to do right by his family. But Larry’s kids don’t show respect, the neighbor hates him and his wife is leaving for a self-assured friend. Throw in blackmail, sodomy, bigotry, drugs and non-specific health issues, and Larry finds himself in a permanent state of anxiety. Larry, in pursuit of a serious life, turns to his faith for answers. So, he arranges to meet with three different rabbis.
It’s in the office of the second rabbi, Nachnter, that Larry is told the story of the goy’s teeth — a contemporary religious parable that is both a wonderfully crafted highlight in the Coen’s filmography and the key to deepening appreciation for that filmography.
Here’s the story: one day, the local dentist, Dr. Sussman, notices a Hebrew message engraved in a patient’s mould: help me, save me. (Not only is he a goy, but a German to boot). This mysterious sign throws Sussman into a state of tortured anxiety, comparable to Larry’s demeanor. Is this a message from God? What does it mean? What should Sussman’s course of action be? He begins a cosmic quest for meaning.
The rabbi himself revels in the narration of his story, stringing along the hapless Larry:
Nachtner: Can Sussman eat? Sussman can’t eat. Can Sussman sleep? Sussman can’t sleep.
Such rhythm and repetition are distinguishing features of “Coenesque” dialogue, though it also seamlessly weds each film to its own time and place. Just as No Country For Old Men is characterized by deadpan Texan minimalism, The Hudsucker Proxy by hyperkinetic New York babble and Miller’s Crossing by esoteric speakeasy slang, A Serious Man‘s characters communicate in the dramatic call-and-response of Jewish America.
Music accompanies Nachtner’s narration — not Carter Burwell’s mythic original score but Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” an anachronistic 1970s track emblematic of a revolution that surrounds the film’s suburban setting without quite penetrating it. The image and sound editing is exceptional: Hendrix’s screeching guitar and wailing voice alone tells the story of Sussman’s confusion.
The song’s erratic crescendos underline the scene’s pacing. Hendrix cries “waah” as the camera pushes in to an extreme close-up of the goy’s smiling mouth. Buddy Miles’ manic drum roll rises as Sussman peeks into his sleeping wife’s mouth… but he finds nothing. The moments that deliberately anticipate disappointment reflect both the theme and structure of the film as a whole.
Sussman’s obsession with looking inside people’s mouths, and his own mouth, is mirrored in other scenes that focus on ears. Larry’s son drowns out Hebrew classes with earphones, Larry’s brother has a sebaceous cyst and the first shot of Larry himself literally shows the inside of his ear. As with Barton Fink, the only other Coen film with a Jewish protagonist, the brothers ask viewers to look inward. Is that the place where we can expect to find God? What does that make God? What does that make us?
Sussman marches on. He translates the Hebrew letters into their numerical equivalent, calls the resulting number and finds the Bloomington Red Owl (a Minnesota supermarket chain). So, this sequence joins another vaunted Coen tradition, which is to incorporate brand names into dialogue, rendering them ridiculous: Dapper Dan, House of Pancakes and In-N-Out all give comedic texture to the Coenverse. Even Sussman’s egg timer is conspicuously branded as a Lux Minute Minder (appropriate for a man seeking to throw light on the big questions). Dropping Red Owl into a story of spiritual investigation is farcical, but it also somewhat piously disperses the sacred into the everyday. We live our lives through details like buying groceries; Larry lives his life through a series of annoyances that together seem to form a cosmic message that he is doing something wrong. It’s enough to drive any man to look for answers in the most unlikely places — even the Bloomington Red Owl.
A dramatic cut, accompanied by Nachnter’s whisper of “He goes!,” takes Sussman to the Red Owl at night time. He approaches the supermarket in silhouette, wearing a fedora that sits a little too high on his head — the skewed image of a private detective. Out of context, the noirish, Hopper-esque shot could come from Blood Simple. Though it’s all absurd — calling the number, getting the Red Owl in Bloomington and then actually going there — viewers may feel compelled nonetheless. The sequence’s whole construction makes spiritual gumshoes of us all.
Nachnter summarises even more disappointment at the supermarket with the concise tautology: “It’s a Red Owl.” So, Sussman goes to Nachtner himself for answers, sits in the same seat as Larry and reels off a frantic plea of questions. And then… nothing. Nachnter shakes his head and gives a “how-about-that” grin, satisfied with a good story well told. Once again, anticipation and disappointment. Larry all but explodes, demanding a meaning behind the story.
Nachtner: We can’t know everything.
Larry: It sounds like you don’t know anything! Why even tell me the story?!
For Nachnter, it’s the question, not the answer, that forms the point of the story. Pushed to provide a conclusion, he relates the advice he gave to the dentist. The music just about fades back in — but only the cacophonous feedback that follows any Hendrix solo. The rabbi’s answer?
Nachtner: We don’t know. Helping others? Couldn’t hurt.
And the feedback fades out again. Sussman, hearing the advice, smiles with relief. A playful and similar match cut juxtaposes that smile of relief with Larry’s incredulous annoyance at the story. It’s not enough. What about the message? What about the dentist?
The dentist returns to life. A quick montage shows him happy at work, playing golf, laughing with his wife and sleeping soundly. It’s everything that Larry is missing. The story has only increased Larry’s angst. Trying to comfort his charge, the Rabbi compares Larry’s spiritual anxiety to a toothache; a grasping metaphor that seems to miss the point of his own story.
Frustrated, Larry directs his anger at God:
Larry: Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not going to give us any answers?
The same could be asked of the Coens themselves. Their mix of high intellectualism and broad genre tropes has created a body of work that encourages its audience to look for meaning while obscuring it almost entirely. They are famously cagey about explaining the meaning behind the symbols in their films (Tom Reagan’s hat, Anton Chigurh’s coin, the many Freudian icons encountered by The Dude), and the goy’s teeth are no different. Yet the telling of this story-within-the-story is self-reflexive. When we watch the films, we can be Larry — agonising over “feeling the question” — or we can be Sussman, content not to know but still enjoying the experience.
This concept was spelled out most explicitly in the Coens’ most recent film, Hail Caesar!, which presents as perfect equivalents the meaning-making factories of Hollywood, Christianity and Communism. A God, a cause, a movie, a message in the mouth of a goy: it all comes back to what’s inside your head. It has worth as long as you believe in it.
Nachtner: We don’t know. Helping others? Couldn’t hurt.
These seven words summarise a rather robust epistemological worldview.
Though A Serious Man is full of loose ends and anti-climaxes, the Coens know their audience well enough to end this scene with a joke, and it is perhaps the best punchline of their career:
Larry: And what happened to the goy?
Nachtner: The goy? Who cares?
Joel Blackledge is a writer, teacher and filmmaker living in the UK. Say hi on Twitter at @thegreatdamfino.