From Blood Simple to A Serious Man, the films of the Coen brothers have provided food for thought for movie critics and audiences for 25 years. For one author, Cathleen Falsani, they have provided more. In the Coens' filmography, Falsani noticed a moral order.
Falsani , the author of the book The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, says that though the brothers' films — full of violence and deceit — might not hew to traditional views of right and wrong, taken as a whole, they paint a clear picture.
"People say their worlds are chaotic, but I see a definite rhythm to good and bad," Falsani says. "If you do something, there is an effect. When you make a choice and you make the wrong choice, you're going to get it in their world. And then sometimes, as in the case of A Serious Man, even if you don't make the wrong choice, you still might get it."
Set in the Minnesota town where they grew up, in 1967 — the year that Joel would have made his bar mitzvah — A Serious Man is, according to Falsani, the Coen brothers' most self-referential film, and also their most overtly religious.
Larry Gopnik, the film's title character, might be a version of the biblical character of Job. Beset by an unwavering series of unfortunate circumstances, Larry begins to ask questions of the the religious leaders in his community. The answers, just as in Job's story, are ambiguous at best.
Then, of course, there's The Dude. The hero of The Big Lebowski is portrayed by Jeff Bridges as a meditative — or perhaps stoned? — fellow with long hair and a beard. He might evoke the traditional representation of a messiah, though he spends the entire movie clutching either a joint or a White Russian.
Though he may look like a slacker, says Falsani, "there's a deep-centeredness to him."
A centeredness that has a particular echo in Jewish mysticism.
"[I] think he's a lamed-vovnik," Falsani says. "Which is sort of a Jewish mystical idea of these 36 righteous souls who hold up the fate of the rest of the world on their shoulders. But nobody knows who they are, and they don't know that they are a lamed-vovnik themselves."
Appropriately enough, it was Lebowski that got Falsani started down the road to The Dude Abides. She says she couldn't help but notice that though The Dude seems uninterested in spiritual awareness, lest it interfere with his bowling, or his quest for Half & Half, he's the center of the movie for a reason.
"He's a pure spirit," Falsani says. "Not a perfect man — and as the film says, certainly a lazy man — but a good man. He always makes choices to be respectful and caring and give people second chances. And he tries to keep the peace and he tries to keep the community together."
After noticing apparently religious themes in Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou, Falsani says she was off to the races: "I just went sort of spelunking for the God stuff in their entire oeuvre."
One figure offered up a surprising theological parallel. Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson, the pregnant cop who waddles her way through the aftermath of the violence that propels the plot of Fargo, might seem at first glance to be the Coens' version of a Madonna, but Falsani insists that instead, she's "the closest thing to a Christ figure they have in any of their films."
"She's in the hellfire, she's in the blood and the guts, but she's not changed by it. She changes the chaos and tries to drag it back to some moral order," she says.
The fact that Marge responds to the chaos around her as if setting the disorder of the world to rights is just part of her job offers a window into the moral code of what Falsani calls the "Coeniverse."
"[Marge] is the quintessential righteous person in the Coen worlds in that she is deeply decent," Falsani says. "I think that's the highest moral character you can have in the Coeniverse ... to be decent."
Falsani, who believes the Coens would resist being called theologians, got a chance to show the brothers her work at this year's Toronto Film Festival, where they were screening A Serious Man.
"They were laughing, so I took that as a good sign," she says. "And I haven't heard from any lawyers, so I guess they liked it."