Growing up in a religious Jewish community, I always had a special affinity for the films of the Coen brothers. Their cheeky humor was appealed to my cynical side and the whispers I heard that they’d grown up Orthodox made me feel an unearned kinship with them. Seeing Walter Sobchak on screen was a formative experience for a generation of Sabbath-observing Jews. As I got older and a little brighter, I started to notice the murky moral waters in which their films swam and my appreciation for them deepened.
Throughout their films, the Coens grapple with the struggles between good and evil, the impact of luck and fate on our lives, and the concept of a creator running it all. Matt Zoller Seitz spoke with film critic Jeffrey Overstreet in Indiewire last month about the representation of religion in the worlds of the Coens:
I think the Coens suggest him via negativa. They show the incompleteness and insufficiency of a vision that leaves God out. There are clearly human evils at work —evils of foolishness, carelessness, folly, and evils of greed and deliberate violence. But there are also evils of apocalyptic, seemingly supernatural proportions. As No Country demonstrates, good deeds and the power of law are not enough to save the world. Ultimately, the best we can do is seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the presence of something greater than ourselves.
Watching their films as a pre-teen, I think this was something that struck me at a gut level. Overstreet goes on to say he thinks the Coens believe in God as more of a concept than an understandable entity–as that which is greater than we are. Seeing a representation of that kind of worldview, so opposed to the notion of a God actively engaged in the world, with human emotions and features, certainly affected me deeply.
If God is unknowable, then all attempts to know it are futile. And all claims of absolute truth or to a complete understanding of the mysteries of our universe are ludicrous, making them a great source of humor in their films:
Do the Coens want to try to make sense of any of this? I don’t know . . . There are times when they seem as baffled as the rest of us. They certainly have a fondness for narrator characters who try to put everything in perspective and fail miserably and very amusingly. The narrator Moses—what a name!—in The Hudsucker Proxy, or Sam Elliott’s cowboy in Lebowski, kind of lose their places as they’re trying to put a frame around things. The Coens seem to get a kick out of tantalizing us with answers while laughing at the very idea that there could be answers.
There’s an aspect to their work that reminds me of going to Sunday school as a kid, and I don’t mean that as a knock, not at all. It also reminds me of hearing my grandfather tell stories about his childhood by way of moral instruction. They’re illuminating the universe, or at least exploring it. But they’re not going about it in a didactic way. There’s something fundamentally humble about them, as visually and structurally and generically flamboyant as they sometimes are. I feel like they’re figuring things out, too—figuring themselves out, figuring the world out, and laughing at themselves, and the rest of us, for thinking there’s An Answer to anything.
At some point in my teenage years, I told myself: “If anyone ever tells you that they know ‘The Answer’ to anything, they’re lying.” It’s very possible the Coen brothers, without knowing it, planted that thought in my mind.
What about the original question? Do they believe in God? Overstreet thinks, like I do, that like in their films, the truth is obfuscated and ambiguous.