The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man (2009) is the story of Larry Gopnik, a physics professor in a small Jewish town, whose life suddenly runs wild with horror. One of many threads involves his wife kicking him out of the house, and demanding a divorce so she can remarry Sy Abelman. Everyone keeps telling Larry to see Marshak, the head Rabbi.
“The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t really know what’s going on.”
The movie frequently uses physics as a way to establish paranoia, but this is perhaps the most clear incident. The massive board in the long shot shows that even an intensely elaborate strain math, or what Sy calls “the art of possible,” fails to make sense of the way the world works. It is a slip of the absurd, and where life fails to make sense, it is our fears that kick in – specifically, the fear of not knowing whether Sy had sex with Larry’s wife. The uncertainty is worse than knowing, because now it’s up for Larry’s mind to run wild, to haunt him in his dreams.
What I particularly love about the scene is the sheer massiveness of the room. When the class files out, there’s a lot of empty space, and yet somehow it feels even more claustrophobic. Larry is situated front and center, in the position of the teacher, yet once they’re alone it is Sy who has the upper hand. He is, quite literally, sitting above Larry – and he’s been hidden from view until now. Emerging from nowhere, Sy is at liberty to tear Larry apart. And he does: the shifts in beat are denoted by pushing from long shot to medium shot to close-up, always leading with Sy.
Also, for those who haven’t this movie, you really have to. It’s one of the greatest, most original films of all time, and a definite must-see unlike anything else. Just had to get that out of the way! ;- )