A Serious Man (2009) Ending Explained – A post-modernist take on suffering

A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009) is one of the Cohen Brothers’ lesser-known films, but it’s just as brilliant as you’d expect from the legendary filmmaking pair. The Cohen Brothers often deal with themes of futility and alienation in the modern world.

A Serious Man, made right after their Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men, was less of a hit, and more of a meandering, slice-of-life gem made by themselves, for themselves. But like No Country for Old Men, this film ends rather abruptly. So, what does the ending of A Serious Man really mean? Let’s geek it out!

A Serious Man Plot Summary

The movie begins with a self-contained short film. In the distant past, a Husband travels home in the snow when a wheel falls off his carriage. He’s helped by a man that, as it turns out, his Wife believes to be dead. She says with certainty that the man must be a ‘dybbuk.’ That’s a Jewish mythological term for the disembodied soul of a dead person. Then, the man knocks on the door.

The Wife immediately accuses him of being a dybbuk, but the Husband, “a rational man,” dissuades the man from listening to her. The Wife stabs the man, and he quickly leaves. We never learn who was right, but we’ll come back to this story at the end.

The main storyline follows Larry Gopnik, a Jewish man whose life is slowly falling apart. His wife wants to divorce him for his best friend, and the divorce is costly. Their kids fall into drug use and apathy, even steal from him. Larry’s neighbor is encroaching on his land and his work as a professor pressures him into making unethical decisions for a lazy student. He’s denied tenure and on top of it all, he might have cancer. It’s all quite bleak.

All the while, Larry doesn’t do much of anything to change his luck. Mostly, he laments, has bad dreams, and wonders why this is happening to him, and what it all means. “But I didn’t do anything wrong!”

He does, however, seek guidance from a number of Rabbis, none of which can give him the answers he seeks. The first Rabbi has very little helpful advice. Larry basically boils it down to “The boss (God) isn’t always right but he’s always the boss.” Would that make you feel better? The second Rabbi, Rabbi Nachtner, tells a story about a man with parts of the Talmud (Jewish holy text) carved into the back of his teeth. However, he ends the story abruptly, and tells Larry to stop trying to understand God’s mysterious ways. That’s also not very helpful.

How does A Serious Man end?

At the end, a tornado is headed towards a school, and the teacher takes the kids (including Larry’s son) out to the storm shelter. The tornado is visible and heading straight for the children. However, as the teacher struggles to open the storm cellar door, the kids just stand there, staring- almost waiting for the tornado to get them (much like Larry watching his own life fall apart)… Cut to black. Movie over. So what does it mean?

A modern Gob chooses sin

Perhaps the simplest way to view the ending, and subsequently the theme of A Serious Man, is to see Larry quite literally as a modern Gob. To sum up that bible story, God makes a bet with Satan that even if he ruins Gob’s life, Gob will remain faithful and not turn to evil. In the Bible, God wins the bet.

Near the end of A Serious Man, Larry accepts bribe money to pass a failing student in order to help pay for his lawyers. Perhaps this choice brings forth the literal stormy wrath of God? Maybe Larry should’ve heeded Rabbi Nachtner’s simple advice?

In the Bible, one of the first blows to the life and faith of Gob is the death of his children. Could this whole film have only been a preamble to Larry’s woes? Is the death of his son in the Tornado not the end, but the beginning of Larry’s true suffering? His struggle with morality is evident throughout.

There’s a visually poignant moment in which Larry is climbing a ladder (perhaps a reference to Jacob’s ladder?) to his roof, and his gaze is caught between the sun above (holiness) and a naked woman tanning next door (temptation).

Maybe the modern world has removed us from the simple lives and teachings of our religions, like in the opening? Maybe we’re too busy sweating the ‘small’ stuff? This is a deeply metaphorical and heady film, so that’s certainly not the only way to take it.

Action and inaction

Let’s go back to that opening scene. The Wife, when compared to Larry, presents a dichotomy. The Wife represents swift action motivated by faith. She doesn’t wring her hands debating, or wait in fear for the dybbuk to leave. She promptly stabs him and bids him good riddance.

Larry, on the other hand, is slowly crushed under the weight of his own inaction. He’s the type that, by the time he learns the deeper truth, it’ll be too late to do anything about it.

This presents Jewish religious tradition as a kind of double-edged sword. On the one hand, pure faithful action can cause people to be misguided and arrogant. The young Rabbi being so certain he knows how to fix Larry’s troubles displays this well. In the extreme, faithful arrogance is represented by the Wife killing what may be just an innocent old man.

Larry’s scepticism and desire for a rational answer to all his problems paralyzes him, ultimately making him powerless in the events of his life. This is rather similar to the Husband, who either brought home a dybbuk, or stood by helplessly while his wife murdered an old man.

Taking this road makes the theme of the film more of a rumination on faith itself than a clear-cut statement about it. When you’re as talented as the Cohen brothers, you can afford to meander and simply be artistic for one’s own sake.

A post-modernist take on suffering

After seeing this movie for the first time, you may be reminded of a quote from Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut posits that the wisest thing ever said about the suffering endured by the Jews and soldiers in WWII was spoken by a bird. It said, “Po-tee weet?” The takeaway here is that human suffering has no deeper meaning, no rationality or grand purpose. The attempt to rationalize suffering will ultimately lead you nowhere.

This revelation is especially hard to swallow for people like Larry, who make their living as mathematicians, scientists and philosophers- searchers who are never satisfied with the brute facts of life. Larry certainly wasn’t able to accept his misfortune as unintelligible, and look where that got him. Maybe all we can do is face our lives with a balance of faith and rationalism, and the boldness to act- to be serious people.

Have you seen A Serious Man? What do you think of the ending? Do let us know in the comments below!

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