By Peter Hummers on August 7, 2020
Alfred, Lord Tennyson called the book of Job “the greatest poem of ancient and modern times.” The [Old Testament book] addresses the vindication of God in the light of the suffering of humanity and interpretations have become popular for writers, from the Yiddish memoirs of Sholem Aleichem to Archibald Macleish’s JB. Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo) and Terrence Malick (The New World) have also weighed in.
Fittingly, the Coen Brothers have written and produced a wonderful black comedy-drama recalling the story. This 2009 film is about a Jewish professor in Minnesota (Michael Stuhlbarg, Boardwalk Empire [Stream On]), whose life crumbles, leading him to question his faith.
In a strange prologue, a 19th-century eastern European tells his wife that he has been helped by Reb Groshkover and has invited him home for soup. His wife says Reb is dead and this man must be a dybbuk, his malicious spirit. When Reb shows up the wife stabs him in the chest with an ice pick and he staggers out into the night.
In 1967 Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) is a physics professor in a suburban, cookie-cutter neighborhood in Minnesota. His wife tells him she wants a divorce, so she can marry another; his teenaged son owes money for marijuana; Larry is facing an impending vote on his application for tenure and anonymous letters have urged the committee to deny him.
The father of a Korean student attempts to bribe Larry into giving his son a passing grade; when Larry objects the father threatens to sue him for accusing bribery. Larry says he doesn’t understand, and the father says, “Please. Accept the mystery.”
Larry’s brother sleeps on the couch and fills a notebook with what he calls a “probability map of the universe,” which, to Larry, appears to be page after page of incomprehensible gibberish.
Larry and his wife’s boyfriend are involved in simultaneous but separate car accidents. Larry is unhurt; the boyfriend dies, and he is eulogized as “a serious man.”
At the heart of the movie is a bizarre parable told to Larry by a rabbi (brilliantly set to Jimi Hendrix’s “Hear My Train a’Coming” [YouTube]), from whom he has sought advice, which concerns a message from the mouth of a gentile.
Here is a trailer: [YouTube]
Terrence Malick’s 2011 film looks at the questions of Job with a new-testament slant. It begins with this column’s title, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4,7) but continues with a whispered male voiceover, “Brother, mother, it was they who led me to your door.”
A young girl is seen looking through an open window on a farm. We hear, “The nuns taught us that there are two ways through the path of life—the way of nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you will follow.”
The girl is shown next as a young woman (Jessica Chastain) with her family in the Texas suburbs of the 1950s. Her husband (Brad Pitt) is playing with their sons. Her narration continues, “Nature only wants to please itself. To get others to please it, too—likes to lord it over them—to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. When love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.
“I will be true to you whatever comes…”
In the present, son Jack (Sean Penn), now an unhappy businessman, learns of his brother’s death. A neighbor tells Jack’s mom, mirroring the scripture of Job, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. That’s the way He is.”
Back in the Texas suburb of the 1950s, we see the boys growing up in impressionistic and idyllic vignettes, as they navigate life. Mother is lovely, like a dancer, unconditionally loving, and father is a good man, a serious man, who disciplines his boys, also lovingly. Mother is grace; father is nature. Jack’s recollections come with a minimum of dialogue, mostly thoughts: “How did you come to me? In what disguise?”
While his father is away on a business trip, Jack and his brother (“true, kind”) commit acts of vandalism. Jack breaks into a neighbor’s house and steals her nightgown, while his brother remains innocent (“How did I lose you?”). This is interspersed with scenes from the beginning of time. A large dinosaur finds another, smaller, resting on the ground. It’s foot hovers over the other’s head; the hunter stares down on the prey, but looks around and trots off, leaving the resting dinosaur unharmed. Mother: “Light of my life. I search for you. My hope. My child.”
Jack: “You spoke to me through her.” Jack’s father returns home, failed—having been given the choice of relocating to an inferior position or losing his job. He questions whether he has been a good enough person and asks his sons to forgive him.
Jack, in the present, leaves work for home in a chrome and glass city. Troubled, he has a vision of a young girl walking across a rocky terrain. There is a wooden door frame free-standing on the rocks and he passes through it. Someone says, “Follow me,” and Jack finds the place where grace and nature meet.
The film is free-verse poetry, with beautiful photography; even the special effects of the creation, to the sound of choral liturgies and thunder, are quiet and subdued. Here’s a trailer on [YouTube,] “Someday we will fall down and weep. And we will understand it all.”
Next time—and now for something completely different!
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)