So this is what Jewish fatalism looks like stretched out to feature length. The new film from Ethan and Joel Coen, A Serious Man, focuses on a college professor at the dawn of the nineteen-seventies, facing a tenure hearing and crumbling personal life. He’s generally saddled with a dour parade of bad news, and the film is primarily about his increasingly frayed attempts to weather the storm. How do you keep soldiering on through life when fate seems determined to crush you? Within this grim cloud of a movie, the Coen brothers generate dark drama and a brand of humor black enough to somehow make the laughs feel like their accompanied by inhaled soot.
The Coens have long been skilled practitioners of gleefully warped storytelling, matching the cynicism of their writing with bold and inventive camerawork. What has sometimes gotten lost in the admiration of their willingness to send their camera and their characters careening around like hapless residents of a pinball game is their mastery of the mechanics of film narrative and visual storytelling. Throughout their latest effort, the efficiency and artfulness of the images consistently impresses. The opening of the film is a sort of preface, a film short on its own, a story from a distant, snow-blown past that presumably explaining the origins of the bad luck that will soon follow. It is amusing on its own terms, but it also exemplifies how to build tension, use off-screen space, develop characters with a just a few quick strokes, build timing into the storytelling. It is a perfect nugget of writing and directing. By standing somewhat apart from the rest of the film, it offers a reminder of the technical craftsmanship of the Coens, and further illuminates the inspiration of what will follow.
That’s part of what makes the Coens great directors. Another part is their splendid collaborations with actors, seen here in the extraordinary lead performance by Michael Stuhlbarg. As the fresh sources of dismay continue to mount for his character, Stuhlbarg shows how close his character is to breaking. He’s like a windshield that’s sustained a pinpoint crack that gradually spreads until it’s a spiderweb of fractures covering the entire surface, the glass quivering but not quite reaching the point of shattering. At times, the anguish contained right under the surface is almost unbearable. Stuhlbarg conveys this with precision. In the fleeting moments when the character gets some respire, you gratefully exhale with him.
It’s not always an easy film to sit through, but that’s largely the point. As opposed to other filmmakers who can occasionally veer towards sadistic when they bring their bleak worldview to the screen, the Coens take a rueful laugh-to-keep-from-crying approach. They don’t blink, carrying out their vision without the pause of a second guess, right up to the fantastic final shot. It wouldn’t be much fun to live in the world that the Coens see through their lens in A Serious Man, but it’s incredibly rewarding to watch it.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)