Ludwig Wittgenstein was a gay homophobic anti-Semitic Jew who spent his entire career writing philosophy books about why language could not say anything meaningful about philosophy. In his early work, he wrote, "What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence." By this he meant that the Big Questions that philosophers and, later, Woody Allen would try to answer with language could not in fact be answered with language. Language, according to him in his early writings, was a "picture of the world." Like a camera, it could only record what was in front of it. You could no more speak meaningfully about God than you could take a picture of him.
Though many have noted it was filmed on location in their home state of Minnesota, the real truth of the matter is no doubt more extreme: I suspect the Cohen Bros actually wrote, shot, and edited A Serious Man while confined to an underground bunker beneath their childhood backyard. Their supplies were restricted to a bushel of weed, Wittgenstein's Tractatus, a case of gefilte fish, and a single CD of Jefferson Airplane that they realized to their despair skipped on every track except for "Someone to Love" and "My Best Friend." Despite these limitations, which put the Mumblecore and Dogma filmmakers to shame, they managed to make one of the best movies of their careers, one that's still waking me up in the middle of the night more than a week after seeing it.
Wittgenstein's one exception to his "must-remain-silent" rule applied to the arts, especially poetry. Though he doesn't write about this in the Tractatus, at least not to my recollection, he did say elsewhere that a piece of writing could "gesture toward" truths that were otherwise literally impossible to articulate. This is the way the stories function in A Serious Man: they feel saturated with a kind of meaning that resists squeezing out.
A Serious Man tells three stories: the main story of our protagonist Larry Gopnik, a beleagured college professor in 1967, and two others: a short, fable-like tale in Yiddish at the beginning of the film, and the story of "The Goy's Teeth," related to Larry by a very unhelpful rabbi. SPOILER ALERT, but though each of these stories behaves throughout like a traditional, conventional narrative -- premise, rising action, character development, all that jazz -- none of the three ultimately resolve. They end on what in middle school they taught us to call "the climax," the turning point, when the action has peaked and there's no going back. Each story functions like a question: is the visitor to the cow-seller's home dead or alive, a dybbuk or a kindly old man? What is the meaning of the message written in Hebrew on the goy's teeth? And what on earth is God trying to tell Larry Gopnik?
At one point, Larry Gopnik plaintively asks, "Why does God make us feel the questions if he's not going to give us the answers?" In their film, the Cohens also make us feel those questions, not through any metaphysical means, but through simple use of craft. Unlike, say, David Lynch at his weirdest, whom the viewer has to chase like a child through a crowded airport, the Cohens lead us by the hand right up to the lip of the abyss. This movie reminds me of Strunk and White's exhortation in The Elements of Style: "Be cagey plainly! Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion!" The Cohens shoot this film in frames almost like still photography: a radio, an envelope of money, a suntanning vixen are framed on the screen iconically, unmistakably. And each image thus presented is attached to an arc that is almost kitschily familiar to us. The characters here are nearly sitcom types: the crazy brother, the sexy neighbor lady; the story of Larry's son's radio could have been stolen from a stoner episode of the "Wonder Years." Like sitcom types, these characters are not defined by their rich interiority but by their function in the plot, the way they up the tension for Larry, the way they raise the stakes. The fact characters literally repeat themselves, for comic and dramatic effect, is no accident. "Give me that fucker," the son's stoner friend intones; "Out in a minute!" Larry's brother yells from the bathroom. Because we can predict the behavior of these people -- because we know them -- the Cohens trick us into thinking that we understand the logic of the fictive world they inhabit. But we do not understand their world any more than we understand our own. When we realize this, the contrast between the known and the unknown is heightened, almost unbearably, and the Cohens' opaquacity, their refusal to explain "what it's all about," shocks, maybe even enrages the viewer. "They didn't set me up for that kind of ending," I found myself thinking. Yet in fact, the feeling of being unprepared, speechless, at the end of the film does something even greater than showing us some truth that Larry learns. It shows us the truth of his situation by placing us in it ourselves.