Column

Heisenberg’s Curious Principle

A Serious Man
Produced by Studio Canal and Working Title Films
Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
Distributed by Focus Features

 

Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is hardly cinematic, yet Ethan and Joel Coen have made it a linchpin in the plots of two of their films, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and their latest work, A Serious Man.  In the first, Tony Shalhoub, playing a ferociously imperious lawyer of abysmal ethics, plans to use it to defend his lovely client against murder charges.  He will demonstrate that all the evidence against her doesn’t matter.  “You see,” he says in mystical tones, “sometimes the more you look, the less you really know. . . . There’s this heini in Germany, who wrote it out in numbers.”  Once the jury grasps this dazzling feat of epistemological jujitsu, they will speedily decide the prosecution’s case is utterly without merit.  In A Serious Man, Heisenberg returns to upset more certain certainties.  If nothing else, the Coen brothers seem to want to educate moviegoers on the mysteries of quantum physics.  Heisenberg’s Principle is famous—or infamous—for demonstrating that, at the quantum level of reality, “we can never know what’s going on with certainty,” as Prof. Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg),...

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