At the end of Coen Bros family/existential drama A Serious Man, we leave our “hero” Larry Gopnik, having just 1) been awarded tenure and 2) changed a student’s grade in exchange for money, with 3) ominous but unclear news from his doctor, and 2) a son trying to pay back a thug but being chased down by a tornado.

In other words, it’s all loose ends. There is arguably some thematic resolution—that is, you can kind of say justice is being served (though only if you believe in a cruel kind of justice (which, given the Coen’s other films, one might suspect))—but the action is quite alive, still building, when the curtain drops.

And yet, and yet… And yet I knew exactly when it would end. I remember quite clearly inhaling sharply and feeling that perfect-ending tingle right before the screen went dark. How did they manage to create such an unconventional ending and at the same time signal to me, the viewer, that the ending was imminent?

If you’ve seen A Serious Man, what did you think of the end? If you haven’t seen the movie, does what I write above make sense with regard to any other movie you can think of? Mid-action, or in some other way surprising, ending that nonetheless feel perfectly timed?


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SHYA SCANLON is the Fiction Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Scanlon's work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010. In 2009, his novel Forecast was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in December, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com.

8 responses to “A Serious Spoiler”

  1. Regarding the perfect timed ending, I’m going to go with the following:

    1) No Country for Old Men

    Yeah, I know some people were pissed about the ending. Me, not so much. It’s Cormac McCarthy. I expected that. I liked it. I felt it was perfect. Supposedly someone has bought the rights to turn Blood Meridian into a film. Not the Coen Bros. How that person will ever accomplish this and keep an R rating, I don’t know.

    Fight Club

    I was a bit bummed it didn’t end like the novel with the psych ward/heaven conclusion, but I think Fincher did the beginning/conclusion justice visually. Bullet in the brain like a Tobias Wolff short story.

    • Brad Listi says:

      I loved this film when I saw it the first time. And just like you, was sort of breathless at the end and loved the way it ended. In fact, considering what the film is—what questions it asks, the tough themes it confronts, and so on—it’s really sort of masterfully done. A brutally funny movie about The Meaninglessness of It All.

      “It’s so im-poh-tant, Larry.”

      I actually got a copy of the screenplay and have read it a few times. What a great script.

      And what a great ending. That’s two in a row. I’ll agree with Pillow and say that No Country had a nice, unconventional ending as well. One that leaves you in existential limbo, but not without the proper set of questions.

      Note-perfect.

      • Shya Scanlon says:

        But how did they do it?!

        • Brad Listi says:

          Well, I think the parallel stories of father and son facing advancing age/maturity/death were nicely intertwined. And I think the pacing at the end, the quick intercutting from storyline to storyline, was helpful. Music. Imagery. (That tornado is just beautifully ominous.) It’s a symphony of things, really. Even the score.

          The end of the film is like the brutal punch line to the great big cosmic joke.

          How did they do it? Magic, really.

          I’m a big believer in the theory that whenever a film is really good and really works, it’s at least part magic.

  2. Phat B says:

    I’ve only seen it once, and the person I saw it with thought the ending was a bit Soprano’s. From what I remember, there was really nothing left to resolve involving the main theme. Once we come to the conclusion that the main character is never going to get his answer about the meaning of faith, the only logical conclusion is for him to have to deal with all the shit that was piling up while he was looking for an answer that never existed. I guess I took the final lesson as “Life’s a bitch and then you die, don’t waste your time trying to figure out why.” But again, I’ve only seen it once, and the Coens always merit additional views. I think it drops to DVD this Tuesday.

    • Shya Scanlon says:

      I basically agree with your summary of the “moral,” such at it is. But I hardly think the end was like that of the Soprano’s. As Brad has described above, all the things that are in motion when it happens are suggestive of a shift in the central drama. It was all just so well timed, and I’m extremely interested in how they got me to recognize that the film was going to end exactly where it did, right before it actually happened. I don’t think I “saw into the future” – I think something about how the action (and, likely, again as Brad points out, the score) was paced, somehow perfectly prefigured it.

  3. Phat B says:

    And here’s my usual (unanswered) prayer anytime a Coen Brothers movie comes to DVD:

    Dear Lord,

    Please include a commentary from the Coen Brothers on their upcoming DVD. Whatever it takes to convince them. Plague of frogs, blood from the sink, whatever. Commentary. Make it happen. Why won’t they speak? We know they’re funny.

  4. Sung J. Woo says:

    I’ve been the fans of the Coens for a long time, though not as long as some; Raising Arizona was my first. And although I love them, I haven’t loved all of their movies — didn’t care for No Country and also thought Fargo just wasn’t as great as critics made it to be. But Barton Fink, Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski — these are just incredible. And even the movies I don’t like I still enjoy seeing, because they’re wonderful filmmakers through and through.

    But to your question — the ending of A Serious Man (which I loved seriously). They ended the movie exactly where it should’ve ended, quite logical, in fact. Larry made his choices, and once he did, his story comes to its natural conclusion (i.e., most likely the end of his life). And the same with the son. Throughout the whole movie, he’s trying to pay off the bully, and once he has the cash, his story is also finished. The reason why the movie doesn’t feel like it ended is because the bully doesn’t care about the cash anymore. Because there’s something very large, very uncontrollable, looming ahead, which makes everything that you’ve seen so far — Larry and his issues, his brother and his weirdness, the daughter who’s always washing her hair, the boy and his radio, etc. — infinitely meaningless.

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