The Coens’ metaphysical movies

Joel-Ethan-CoenSince the 1960s, Woody Allen has made dozens of movies that have mixed entertainment and exploration of metaphysical issues. Perhaps Allen was an inspiration for Oscar-winning movie makers Joel and Ethan Coen, whose latest film, “A Serious Man,” opens Friday.

New York Times writer Franz Lidz probed the brothers’ spiritual subtexts in a Sunday feature, “Biblical Adversity in a ’60s Suburb.” The opening quote below comes from a Jewish rabbi:

“The conceit of ‘A Serious Man’–and I mean that in the most literal sense — is that God would have anything whatever to do with the inanities of human existence.”

Filled with unfamiliar faces, “A Serious Man,” which opens on Oct. 2, is both a Job-like parable of Jewish angst in a 1960s Midwestern suburb and a bleakly antic meditation on divine intent, the certainty of uncertainty and the mysteries of Jefferson Airplane lyrics. (The film opens with the quotation “Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you” and ends with the disclaimer “No Jews were hurt in the making of this motion picture.”) The 14th feature by the Coen brothers, the Oscar-winning writer-directors of “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men,” “A Serious Man” is also the most personal project yet by two filmmakers sometimes dismissed as smart but bloodless.

Writers and critics who cover pop culture often overlook spiritual themes, so I warmly offer a GetReligion “thumbs up” to Lidz. Still, his article left me wanting to know more about the Coens, their sense of Jewishness and the ways their values inform their films. That’s why I am so happy that Chicago Sun-Times religion columnist Cathleen Falsani wrote The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers (Zondervan):

Beginning with Blood Simple, the story of a man who has grave doubts about his wife’s fidelity and what happens when he attempts to uncover the “truth,” the Coens have boldly engaged serious existential questions with darkly intelligent humor.

The bulk of Falsani’s book consists of well-crafted summaries of the Coens’ films in which she illustrates their humor, seriousness and deep intelligence. She then follows with brief meditations on the spiritual themes the films raise.

Pass the popcorn and a copy of the Talmud!

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  • Ivan Wolfe

    I always like the ending of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (why isn’t this mentioned in the above post or the linked article?), when George Clooney prays to God to save him – and then, after he is saved, declares it was a totally natural coincidence.

    It also had songs with explicit references to Jesus (“The Sunny Side” & “Lonesome Valley”), a blind prophet, a Bible salesmen, and the Devil himself as a character. In many ways, it was their most explicitly religious film (admitting I have not seen every Coen brothers movie).

  • Dan LaHood

    Father Robert Barron has a terrific review of “No Country” at his Youtube page. Death itself asks you to flip a coin, Death is always following you,just out of sight.

  • falsani

    ivan and dan,
    the chapter on “o brother” explores that scene and the presence of grace in detail in that film.

    and i actually quote from father bob (a friend from chicago) in the book.

    hope you read and enjoy it.

  • Ivan Wolfe

    Well, I’ll have to check the book out, thanks. I was more commenting on the linked article by Franz Lidz above.

  • Jeremy

    i enjoyed the NYT piece – had a light touch and was funny

    however, it did not engage with the Coen brother’s religious or theological themes, did not attempt to describe the Coen brother’s position on any of these topics, in the end only naming the categories in which the Coen brothers’ films sit

    this is not surprising for a wide circulation paper – people would rather laugh than think, and why challenge the readers with what the Coen’s actually believe?

    too hard basket

  • Jeremy

    Hi Ms Falsani – am looking forward to reading your upcoming book

    i thought the zoom in shot at the start of Burn after Reading, and the zoom out at the end, was a pretty overt statement about what they were trying to portray

    with the comical CIA chief closing the file and not having a clue what had just transpired (and knowing that he didn’t know) – it really made me think about the nature of knowledge, how big the knowable universe is, and the impossibility of knowing the truth of the world

    in fact, it gave me a more realistic take on all the conspiracy theories that fly around, made me realise that some things are lost to history, unknowable


  • Cris

    Jeremy: If you followed the Coens’ career at all (I have), you’d know they are reluctant to publicly discuss anything to do with religion or theology. I think the Times writer did a beautiful job, especially considering the Coens’ hard-line reticence. They just will not go there, never have.