I've received many comments from people who didn't like the Coen Bros' A Serious Man because it has "a passive protagonist."
Well, interesting that folks should bring that up. A Serious Man challenges the protagonist question in a way I've never seen a movie do before, and it's not just idle observation, it's built into the structure of the entire movie. Because A Serious Man does not have a passive protagonist, it has a very active protagonist. A very active -- and very powerful -- protagonist.
Unless, of course, it does not. Which is exactly where the mystery lies.
Let me explain.
Early in the movie, Larry Gopnik, a physics professor, lectures to his class about Schrodinger's Cat. The Schrodinger's Cat idea, which is often misunderstood (even by Larry) goes like this:
In 1935, there is a paper on quantum mechanics that suggests (I'm dumbing it down) that certain subatomic particles are so unpredictable that they can be said to exist in more than one state. Schrodinger says that's ridiculous, you can't have something that exists in more than one state. To prove his point, he comes up with a kind of satirical thought-experiment. The thought-experiment is: you put a cat in a steel box, with a death-machine triggered, or not, by the state of one of these unpredictable particles. According to the controversial paper, the cat could be said to be both alive and dead at the same time -- until you looked in the box, you wouldn't know.
The paradox of Schrodinger's Cat hovers over practically every event in Larry Gopnik's life. Either his wife is cheating on him, or she is not. Either a student is bribing him to get a better grade, or he is not. Either his brother is a mathematical genius, or he is not. Either his neighbor wants to have sex with him, or she does not. Larry doesn't know anything, and the biggest thing he doesn't know is why all this trouble is happening to him, which brings us back to the original question: either there is a force, a protagonist, setting the events of the plot of the movie in motion, or there is not -- we never really know. And that protagonist, or not, is God, or Hashem, as he's called here. Hashem takes it upon himself, or does not, to torture Larry Gopnik, and the drama of A Serious Man springs from Larry's attempts to discover the Hashem's intent, or, for that matter, his existence. 2001 has a protagonist who doesn't show up on screen, but A Serious Man goes further, and gives us a protagonist who not only doesn't show up on screen, but may not even be there. And the screenplay uses that mystery -- the last mystery, really, the ultimate mystery -- to drive the entire narrative.
We start in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. A man comes home late at night with his cart, he's got great news for his wife -- he's met a revered older man, a scholar, Traitle Groskover, on the road and invited him home for a meal.
The wife is not overjoyed. She has "heard" that Traitle Groskover is dead from typhus, and therefore her husband has invited into their home a dybbuk, that is, a dead man whose body is possessed by an evil spirit. The husband feels their house is blessed, the wife knows their house is now cursed. The husband calls himself "a rational man" and is uncertain, while the wife is superstitious and absolutely sure of herself. So here, in this out-of-the-way shetl in the middle of the night, the twentieth century has arrived: the husband leans forward, toward logic, reason, and rationality, but the wife is insistent upon things that, to our minds, cannot possibly be true.
And there is a moment, when the old scholar shows up, and there's a knock at the door, when the viewer's neck-hairs stand up, because the thing outside might be an evil, supernatural creature. And there, whether you are aware of it or not, the movie has got you: you know, in your early 21st-century mind, there's no such thing as a dybbuk, and yet part of you absolutely believes -- wants to believe, actually -- that the thing out there just might be one.
The husband invites the scholar in. The old man tries to charm the wife, but she's not having it. She forces the old man to two tests. First, when he says he's not hungry, she accepts that as proof that he's a dybbuk, since a dybbuk does not eat. This is, to put it mildly, circumstantial evidence, and is easily dismissed. Then she forces him to a second test -- she scrapes his cheeks to check the growth of his beard. (She "heard" that the dead Traitl Groskover, transformed into a dybbuk, rose from his deathbed and left the house in the middle of having his face shaved for burial.)
This visit is obviously not going to turn into a pleasant social gathering anytime soon. How could an innocent, indeed, a reverent old man raise the atmosphere after being subjected to not one but two ridiculous "tests" by an obstinate peasant woman? Unless, of course, he is not an innocent old man, but is rather an evil spirit, in which case his attempts to laugh off her tests are cagey and duplicitous, and the wife's tests are actually exposing his trickery.
In any case, the wife comes up with one further test, a rather shocking one -- she stabs him, in the heart, with an ice pick. This final test, like the other two, is, incredibly, inconclusive. At first it seems like the wife is vindicated (and our desire to see the dybbuk unmasked is fulfilled) -- the old man laughs and tries to make light of the situation. Then he starts bleeding, or so it seems, and gets up to leave. Either the wife has triumphed by ridding her house of an evil creature, or else she has sent a pious scholar out to his death in the freezing cold.
The narrative refuses to say; it leaves the episode unresolved. Either the old man is a dybbuk, or he is not (the credits actually list the role as "Dybbuk?".) Either the wife is a mean, superstitious murderer, or she is not. Either the husband is a good man, a "serious man," for inviting Groskover to him home, or he is a fool for inviting evil into his house. We don't know, and we will never truly know, and the question of what is and is not happening informs every plot point of A Serious Man, the best movie of 2009 and the best movie by the Coen Bros.