For some strange reason, Hollywood movies often seem to come in pairs: Volcano and Dante’s Peak in 1997, Armageddon and Deep Impact in 1998, The Truman Show and Ed TV in 1998, to name a few. Now, in 2009, the Coen Brothers’ most recent project, A Serious Man, seems to be competing with Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, NY for preeminence in the more highbrow category of existential horror.

The films are strangely similar given that they were made and written independently of each other. Both are stories about timid and cerebral men who struggle helplessly as their lives unravel in the most excruciatingly depressing ways. It feels as though either story might have begun with the protagonist awaking in his bed to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect, as each film seems dedicated to little more than the goal of watching its subject squirm beneath capricious and overpowering forces in the world around him.

The protagonist (‘victim’ is perhaps a better description) of Kaufman’s script is Caden Cotard, a local theatre director in Schenectady, NY, who has little passion left for his work or for life and whose wife – who coyly admits that she sometimes fantasises about Caden being dead – absconds to Berlin with his daughter to become an enormously successful artist. Caden soon learns that he has been awarded a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, but his efforts to produce a play that will stand as his lasting mark cause him to become disconnected from the world outside his mind, and his life takes a bleak turn for the surreal.

In A Serious Man, The Coen Brothers choose to sacrifice Larry Gopnick, a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university who’s about to come up for tenure and who is happy with the way his life is going. Until, that is, Larry’s wife Judith announces that she plans to leave him for Sy Abelman, his unctuous and more successful colleague in the physics department. Passive like Caden, Larry lets Sy and Judith coax him into moving out of his own house and into the local motel, accepting their rationale that it would be better for the sake of Larry’s children. But Larry’s situation continues to deteriorate as he discovers that his children have been stealing money from his wallet, that his brother is slowly going insane, and that the university’s tenure committee is receiving anonymous letters attacking his character. Larry desperately seeks the advice of the spiritual leaders of his Jewish community, who offer him only indifference, clichés and irrelevant digressions.

It’s hard to shake the feeling with either film that there’s something mean-spirited about the manner in which the filmmakers slowly and painfully dismember characters whose only sin is meekness. Watching either film, I found myself with the uncomfortable choice of having to disdain the characters for shortcomings that I regard as excusable, or subject myself along with them to the film’s assault through my identification with them. Like two of the Coen brothers’ previous works, Fargo and No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man left me feeling duped with the frustrating sense that attempting to understand the film would somehow be construed by the filmmakers as indulging the same kinds of illusions of meaning that contribute to the characters’ downfalls.

I was left with the question: Why make a movie like this? Neither one, it seems, is intended primarily as satire or social commentary, as both films seem to be above passing any sort of judgment on the world that victimises their characters. Perhaps even the Coen brothers themselves would ask of us: Why see a movie like this? A former physics major myself who one day hopes to enter academia, I can’t help but wonder if I should be afraid of ending up like Larry. And then I return to the words of a wise man who once said, ‘No, Donny, these men are nihilists. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’

A Serious Man is released on November 20th.