If you follow the right circle, you will find people who believe that the Coen Brothers hate their characters. If you watch enough Coen Brother movies, one wouldn’t be surprised if you found it difficult not to feel that to be true. There’s a certain amount of glee that resides in most of the Coen’s movies, as you watch their characters flap and frail helplessly as the python-like coils of fate wrap around them and begin to squeeze.
This is certainly true of Burn After Reading, a film I found dismissed by friends who’ve fallen out of love with the Coens. Either that or viewed as a “minor” work by folk, as the film was their first work which came after their Oscar-winning feature No Country for Old Men (2007). In rewatching Burn After Reading, it’s difficult to consider it “minor”. Even though it comes off a film which considers itself as a grandiose and profound work, Burn After Reading, while slight and swift in its pacing, feels very much like a sibling to No Country.
The two films both push their characters into almost Rube-Goldberg style catastrophes. Once individuals fall into the trap, they find the walls of the plot to be well greased and they struggle to get out. The only major difference between the two movies appears to be the element of farce. The plight of Llewelyn and his ill-gotten gains is tense and harrowing. The shenanigans which occur between a spate of eccentrics in Burn After Reading plays on the clear and apparent goofiness. But as with so many of the Coen’s films, if the characters weren’t so greedy they wouldn’t need to be spanked so hard.
From the moment Burn After Reading starts, the Coen’s are hoping you get the joke. Its opening shot which is framed as a view of earth from a satellite can also jokingly be considered as a god’s eye view of the world. The fatalistic world that often inhabits a Coens’ movie only helps compound this. As the visual zooms in, we focus in on fast striding feet walking into a room of serious looking suits with one vaguely bemused gentleman, whose about to get fired.
Osbourne Cox (a boorish John Malkovich) is an alcoholic CIA analyst who has suddenly been given a lot more free time on his hands than expected. He decides to use his enforced retirement to concentrate on his memoirs. A task which would cause more strain on his decaying marriage with his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) if she wasn’t already shacking up with U.S. Marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Pfarrer is a serial shagger who finds himself involved with Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand); a fitness instructor whose quest for superficial self-improvement takes a wild turn when she discovers a disk of what appears to be a batch of sensitive files with her go-getting colleague Chad (Brad Pitt). They look to be rewarded by selling the information back to its original owner; Osbourne Cox.
The cyclical nature of the narrative is now hilariously commonplace when it comes to The Coens. Characters start with nothing, look towards boosting their materialism via untoward methods but usually end up with nothing or worse. They very often get worse. However, Burn After Reading falls into a smaller sub-division of Coen’s brother’s movies. The absurdity of what happens to their protagonists are rarely in doubt yet Burn defies in given us anyone to get our empathy behind. Even with Inside Llewyn Davis (2014), grumpy musician Llewyn gives us his cat. We care for the feline. We care for Llewyn. If only a little.
This is part of Burn After Reading’s charm. In an admirable review of the film from the Hollywood Reporter by Kirk Honeycutt describes the film as thus:
“It takes a while to adjust to the rhythms and subversive humour of “Burn” because this is really an anti-spy thriller in which nothing is at stake, no one acts with intelligence and everything ends badly.”
The espionage is ludicrous. The idea of stakes is folly. The intelligence is non-existent. Burn After Reading succeeds in smartly presenting wannabe spies who are dumber than rocks. Everyone wants to be better than they are. Every individual is blinded by delusions of grandeur. The more they fight tooth and nail, the more they are punished. Everything happens because of their own ignorance and stupidity and, like so many Coen films, they are punished for their superficial wants.
It’s difficult to find Burn After Reading a film in minor-key because what the directors are doing is ridiculously hard. To revel in its lunacy as an audience is quite difficult. It’s no wonder that it’s easy to find people who aren’t amused. The characters are despicable, but they never feel mean-spirited (even despite their spitefulness). The masterstroke in the film is the Coen’s deftness of touch, finding the near cathartic release of watching arrogant people hoisted by their own petard, but deploying subversive casting and delicious comic timing to keep those wanting, thoroughly engaged. One of the clearest uses of these dynamics is executed in the Coen’s A Serious Man (2009). Fighting against fate is futile and that arrogance only makes things worse.
The film is empty in that everything is liberally dipped in foolishness and yet the film’s utilisation of typical Coen traits holds an air of prophecy to it. Ditching the small-town quaintness of middle America, the Coen’s set Burn in the suburbs of Washington. Ten years before the likes of the 45 U.S President, Burn deliciously hints that when it comes to these long-standing organisations designed to keep America secure, there’s a strong chance that the lunatics are running the asylum, especially when a sprinkling of vice is added to proceedings.
Philip Concannon writes of the film:
“This pitch-black farce is a comic riff on the Coens’ favourite theme – a bunch of fools falling over themselves in the pursuit of money – and as amusing as it is, there’s something missing at the heart of it.”
However, it’s not that the film has something missing at its heart, more like the lack of heart is the point. Despicable people boiled down to their purest essence. In looking at where western politics is when considering intelligence and mishandling of personal data, the film almost becomes satirical. Ten years on and Burn’s soulless purist of material gain just feels inherently richer due to the strangeness of real life. Now, ten years on, the film right or wrongly captures the zeitgeist. The state of stasis, where nobody knows anything, and no one seems to be driving the wheel. The Coen’s seems to suggest that they always were, we were just missing a series of unfortunate events. It is funny until you realise it’s 2018 and that Western politics appears to operate with the same chaotic logic and then it becomes crazy. And then it’s funny again. Because if you don’t laugh…
Burn After Reading doesn’t slack from a technical standpoint either. The sharpness of the film’s editing can be seen in the wonderfully orchestrated scene where Osbourne’s files are discovered by the Hardbodies janitor is a blend of impeccably timed transitions, which amusingly felt like part of the inspiration of the trailer of A Serious Man. It’s the type of sequence that highlights that while the performances on the display are hilarious, it’s the nuance of a cut which can take a scene to the next level.
From a visual standpoint, the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki jokingly mocks our love of political 70’s films by, at times, looking like one of the best serious conspiracy films never made. It almost feels like it’s part of the joke, having the movie look as good as it does while having it’s cast act and look as dumb as they do. At a time in which comedies seem less interested in crafting individual looks for themselves, Burn After Reading’s rich look helped it stand out in a year which featured some distinctive comic features.
If there’s another thing that really makes the film tick, however, it’s the performances. The subversive streak which runs through the casting of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Francis McDormand is the kind of delectable decision which one can only hope more filmmakers look to do with other actors in the feature. When we think of Clooney and Pitt, it’s easy to conjure up the stylish, handsome figures which situated Ocean’s Eleven (2001). There’s a devilish joy in watching the two at possibly their most goofy. It’s not that we’ve never seen them play silly. It’s that they don’t often let loose as wholly as this.
This is what is expected with a film with all the classic hallmarks of a farce. Burn after Reading is still an amazing juggling act of watching an ensemble cast losing their marbles. The film operates in the same wheelhouse of the brother’s “bigger” movies, yet I’m more fascinated by the orchestration here than some of their more recent features. Even some of the brother’s well-known entries. Minor isn’t the right word. In fact, accessible is better. The characters are motivated by all the same things that were found from the start of the Coen’s careers in Blood Simple (1984). But Burn After Reading is easier to connect with. The passage of time has also helped to make the film richer. Their command of the craft has made us forget just how assured the duo can be with these kinds of shenanigans. It’s easy to feel that Burn is a film about nothing. But then again so is The Big Lebowski. It didn’t do Jerry Seinfeld much harm either.
Sometimes the best thing about a Coen brothers movie is that they make the seemingly pointless and empty into something tragically funny. A bitter fruit with plenty of juice.
Are you a fan of Burn After Reading? Let us know.