Schroedinger’s cat, God, and religious tradition.

M. Leary has a brilliant post up at Filmwell on A Serious Man, the latest film by the Coen brothers to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. Here is the spoiler-filled note on which it ends:

If the central question of this film rotates on Schroedinger’s cat, the religious implication is this: If the tradition is the box, is God alive or is he dead? The answer being that we really can’t know. If the tradition is the box, then there is a sense in which both answers are correct. I suppose this matches the Coen Brother’s personal take on religion well, as A Serious Man becomes a great example of a classical modern description of religious language. It is both meaningful and meaningless at the same time. But they have been constructing this thought throughout the film in various ways, skillfully exemplified in the stoned kid’s reading of Torah, all the way until the end, at which point we seem to witness a hierophany of a prophetic sort and direct punitive judgment at the same time. Perfect Coen twist. (Is religious language meaningful? Is it? Really? Then comes a massive blast of effective religious language.)

Larry agonizes through this rich vein of Jewish self-reflection. But it is only when he alights upon a mediating position about the whole religion issue that allows him to accept a bribe every now and then that the total possible reality of this religious language/tradition rears its ugly head. We don’t need to know whether or not God is behind the whirlwind and the phone call. It is enough to know that Larry will never be able to have certainty about God’s presence in either, and is thus thrust into an even more serious existential crisis than the one that he began the film with. It is now not a matter of the question of: What should I do?, but: Why is this happening to me?

Religion is a balance of existential crises. A Serious Man seems to suggest that we are at least able to choose which crisis we are willing to live with.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his award-winning film column for that paper, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He has also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005) and The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film (De Gruyter, 2016).