Despite the fact that the Coen brothers are more or less unanimously considered major American filmmakers by this point, several criticisms have continued to dog them. The primary one is some variation on the idea that they are callous, insincere, interested in people only insofar as they can be exploited in bizarre plots and pushed to their limits. In reviewing The Man Who Wasn’t There for the Daily Telegraph, Tim Robey said: “…it is a perfectly executed illustration of what is not, quite, great about the Coen brothers, which is a kind of grandstanding, and another kind of weirdly alienating insincerity.”
In a piece for the Guardian, Will Self lectured the ‘general public’ on their taste: “…someone has to take a bead on the whole sweep of their careers, squint, and then if not exactly shoot them down, at any rate cold-cock the notion that the Coens are the great American auteurs of their generation, when, sadly, they are only a moderately clever person’s idea of what great American auteurs look like.”
They’re not wrong, per se. It might, in fact, be true to many so-called “serious critics” (and probably plenty of regular people too) state that the Coens are a bit too clever for their own good. Or perhaps, more accurately, they are too pleased with their own cleverness, and not often interested in putting said cleverness in the service of thematic statements. More often than not they would rather deploy it in the service of manipulation – of their plotlines, their characters, and their audiences. What I mean by manipulation is a sort of conscious toying, the type of theatrical tactics that magicians (and con artists) trade in: sleight of hand, taking people deliberately off guard, artificially extending certain things while truncating others, letting a laugh bleed into shock and vice versa, and doing it all with a flashy, shallow sort of skill.
They do not look their audiences in the eye and impart – earnestly, nakedly, simply – ideas that matter to them. There are many auteurs that work consistently in that mode, that serve their story materials above all else: Gus Van Sant, Alexander Payne, Clint Eastwood, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, to name a few. But there are also plenty of perfectly valid auteurs whose work falls more in line with the Coens, who are interested in story mostly as a gateway to stylistic expression: David Lynch, Dario Argento, Brian de Palma, and Alfred Hitchcock himself, whose work the Coens may be more indebted to than any other filmmaker, especially as it concerns that knack for manipulating an audience.
It is true that this latter type of auteur is assumed more likely to titillate young film student types, high on style; the accompanying assumption being that this latter type of auteur has inherently less merit as a filmmaker than the former type, for the latter type can smooth over a lack of serious intentions or substance (ostensibly the nobler aim and harder thing to achieve) with dazzling technique, flashier and more noticeable to the over-eager eye of this straw man pretentious film student. To quote from another review of The Man Who Wasn’t There, this one from Philip Kerr in the New Statesman, “It’s axiomatic that Coen-heads – the people who get off on ‘getting it’ – will likeThe Man Who Wasn’t There. Coen-heads get off on the mechanics of filmmaking: the flashy stylistics, the look of the picture… They are the people who walk out of a film talking not about the great dialogue, or a great scene, but the great lighting.”
It should be noted that this sort of generalization about auteurs is a problem with cultural criticism, as is the notion that some filmmakers are objectively better or more valuable than others because of their choice of content. Why must film form necessarily be focused on dialogue and scenes, the traditional building blocks of drama, when there are infinitely more tools in a director’s toolkit? Who is to say that the lighting of a scene cannot be equally valuable in imparting a sense of tone, emotion, concept, etc. to those more traditionally forefront aspects of dramatic storytelling? The only way to expand the visual language of cinema is through formal experimentation. It is not to be balked at.
That’s first of all. Second of all is the fact that there is substantially more going on in (most) Coen brothers’ films than these criticisms would give them credit for, especially when they use that knack for stylistic manipulation to charge up stories that match them, indeed that demand them, in order to achieve maximum expression. Though you might accuse The Man Who Wasn’t There of empty formalism, the key to the emotional tenor of the story is embedded within the style. The Coens are playing (as they often do) with a disjuncture between the content of a film and the mode in which that content is expressed: noir intentionally stripped of its urgency, so we are left with absurdity swirling helplessly within genre signals, those signals trying to make sense of that which cannot be made sense of, trying to squeeze it into a horizon of expectations that it refuses to stay within. Burn After Reading uses similar techniques, as does Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, The Hudsucker Proxy, and to some extent all of the Coens’ more clearly labeled genre work. Their style is more often than not dedicated to the depiction of absurdity and chaos, the walls crumbling around the characters, the stories and the expectations attached to both.
The Coens’ chaotic treatment of genre templates has become their go-to mode, ever since Blood Simple upped the dream logic and absurdity of a Hitchcock thriller or Double Indemnity and transferred the action to rural, depressing West Texas. That is the style, and it is a durable and impressive one. In some ways, they have been making that same movie their entire careers, like a lot of auteurs. But there is only one film in their catalog that is really about that absurdity, not simply applying it to more traditional genre fare, and that is their 2009 comedy A Serious Man. They have made films of equal thematic density (No Country for Old Men and Llewyn Davis come to mind), but never before and never since has their absurdist impulse lined up so fully with the considerations of their thematic content.
One of the primary appeals of drama is that, unlike the real world, everything matters (or at least it should, in good drama). Actions have meaning. Stories begin, they deepen, they resolve. One of the deliberate features of the Coens’ work has been their eschewing of such dramaturgical concepts in favor of deliberate anticlimax. This leads critics, invariably, back to the same sorts of questions about their work: what are we to make of that? Did that actually matter, or did it just seem to matter? Do the creators, gods in their universe, actually have something deeper in mind, or is it all a crapshoot? You can sit there and ask those questions about O Brother Where Art Thou, or The Hudsucker Proxy, or The Big Lebowski, and come up with nothing but shrugs because that’s all the movies offer in response. They are objects unto themselves, and whether or not you think they have value probably depends upon how much you like the Coens and their style, their dialogue, their quirks. The movies are simply behaving as they will, and the critics are considering those questions alongside them. But in A Serious Man, for the first time, the characters in the film grapple with those same questions that critics had been asking for years. The movie may still be shrugging in response, but it is shrugging more deeply, more existentially than ever before. For the first time, the Coens are not daring you to try to make sense of their assemblage, they are inviting you to try, just as they are, just as the characters are.
A Serious Man tethers all of this to a consideration of the world as it seen to operate in the Old Testament. Within the self-contained cultural Jewish inlet of Minnesota, Lawrence Gopnik grapples with a series of (seemingly) random and cruel blows to his life and dignity. His wife is leaving him for smarmy Sy Ableman, whose ex-wife Esther is barely cold, and she wants Larry to grant her a “get” – a Jewish ritual divorce – so that she and Sy can marry in the light of God. A Korean student tries to bribe him for a better grade, and he can’t seem to return the money, so it festers, tempting him to sin. His son has joined the Columbia Record Club under his name, and he is assailed with phone calls asking for payment. His hick neighbor clearly regards him as an ineffectual and pathetic, worthy only of his contempt, and Larry cannot get him to stop mowing his lawn past the property line. His one-screw-loose brother is living with them, and constantly in the bathroom, draining his cyst. His antenna never seems to get all the channels.
Are these assaults on his livelihood random and meaningless, or coordinated and purposeful? What lesson is he meant to be taking from them, if any? He seeks out the advice of two rabbis (the third proves elusive), each with different responses to his problem, both failing to really address it. The first is a young assistant rabbi, whose advice is essential to get a new lease on life, to see things with a new “perspective” (what this entails he does not say). The second rabbi is more honest, considers the issue more deeply, but leaves even more questions in his wake. He tells an elusive anecdote in which a Jewish dentist finds Hebrew letters engraved in the teeth of his goy patient. He wonders if this is a sign from God, and the question consumes him. He can’t sleep, or play golf, or focus at work. He checks everybody’s teeth obsessively. But as time goes on, and no answers appear, he moves on. He finds he stops checking. He sleeps nights again. This enrages Larry. “Why even tell me the story then?!” The questions it raises are far deeper than any answer could conceivably be, for they are questions about the very nature of our existence and the universe.
Again, Larry is wondering what the critics were wondering: what the hell is any of this supposed to mean? A Serious Man elevates the Coens’ working stylistic template into a philosophical treatise on modern man. It lingers upon what their other films simply accepted without question. When, in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Mr. Crane swerves into an oncoming car while resisting fellatio from an underage girl, he doesn’t sit there wondering, “Was that a sign? What meaning am I meant to draw from this incident?” Absurdity and chaos are simply accepted by the characters as the unseen forces that govern the self-enclosed worlds of the Coens’ films. And though those things may govern real life as well, humans do not simply accept that fact. We are obsessed with giving our lives meaning, structure, narrative focus. That is why we as a species are attracted to drama in the first place. If post-modernism was all about taking that apart, trying to bring the meaninglessness and absurdity of real life into drama, then A Serious Man could almost be said to be post-post-modernist. So we’ve brought absurdity into traditional dramatic forms. Now what? What are the implications of that?
It is strange then, since it is perhaps their most mature and forward-thinking work, that it is also one of their most indebted to the past. The Book of Job serves as an obvious point of comparison, but Job was not meant, it would seem, to appear absurd and meaningless. Rather it is meant to provide reassurance that, though the world may often appear that way, there actually is a force of benevolent good that’s overseeing everything, so don’t worry about it. It is the flimsiness of God’s response to Job – its complete lack of willingness to really delve into the muck of the issue – that has made the Book of Job so synonymous with those questions of meaninglessness and absurdity. It is like the assistant rabbi, putting on a bow on a pile of flaming wreckage and declaring the issue solved. The answers provided by the Old Testament no longer match the depth of absurdity in a world with car accidents and medical issues and theoretical physics. Then again, maybe the dread of the Old Testament is the only thing that’s true and real, beneath the dressed up trinkets and concepts that modern man has gathered around himself. Maybe we have convinced ourselves the world is absurd and meaningless because the inverse is equally frightening: that there is an order, and we are sinful, and we will be punished.
These questions, though left dangling, are asked with great sincerity by the Coens, and their stylistic tendencies are put in the service of them. It is an act of redemption for the entire rest of their filmography; suddenly the absurdity of their films is not so much stylistic posturing as a worldview in expression. They are not “a moderately clever person’s idea of what great American auteurs look like,” but perhaps the only great American auteurs to really consider the banal absurdity of the human experience in the post-technological world, how we as a species have spun out of our own control. That is not an insincere position; it is a sincere treatment of an insincere world.
Brian Magid is an NYU graduate and screenwriter, with an interest in the supernatural, the macabre, the past, and the future (the present can get lost). He lives in Brooklyn with his cat, Nymeria.