Burn After Reading
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton
Release date: September 12, 2008
Burn After Reading opens with a view that seems to be from outer space that pinpoints the east coast of America (the land of opportunity). As it slowly descends and creeps closer, eventually delving into a Virginia CIA headquarters, we realize that this view might be from a bomb; a Coen bomb that has the tendency to extract moral values from its characters, twisting and turning them before they’re all led blindly to a state of misanthropy. Humans have no regard for each other’s emotions; what means the most to one person means absolutely nothing to the next. An evil world indeed, but it is a Coen world where the outside world pales in comparison as far as evil goes.
What the Coen Brothers have done throughout their career is pit casual people against odds and ends that are much more lethal and powerful than they could possibly be. This is their formula, though they’ve been constantly changing venues, the ramifications that follow have always stayed true to their original formula. But there’s something of an awe with this new venue that is found in Burn After Reading. I can’t quite put my finger on it. The brothers turn in a movie that contains 96 minutes of pure comedic delight and, strangely, the same amount of dread that I can’t recollect seeing anywhere else in recent cinema; it’s something rare, something that can’t possibly be missed.
A disc containing top secret information is found in the locker room of a Washington, D.C., gym. Employees Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt) find out that it belongs to a recently fired CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). He’s already on the deep end for being fired because he drinks too much and his stability with his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is a little shaky.
Linda is in dire need, or so she thinks, of four reconstructive surgeries to enhance her look. Chad on the other hand is mind-boggled at the information on the disc and is willing to give it back and be a ‘Good Samaritan’ until Linda suggests they blackmail Cox for money. The way Pitt’s Chad bobs his head to his iPod music and the way he adores his fitness job is a man satisfied with his life. But slowly it is a soul being wrecked of its innocence.
The hard heads of America, the dumbness they possess, think they know what they’re doing. Cox, the only logical character in the movie, but also the one most likely to tick, has a No Country moment with his father on his boat: He finds the world now to be littered with morons and is at a loss for words when trying to figure out how his disc ended up in the hands of morons. In a more heartbreaking scene that justifies the ugliness of the characters, he tells his wife he wants to write a memoir and she laughs in his face showing no respect.
While that is all going on, Linda still manages to get involved with a man she meets on a ‘Net dating service. Turns out he’s a hit-man working for the CIA who touts that he hasn’t used his gun in twenty years and if he has to it will come natural. His name is Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a lactose-intolerant sex maniac who doesn’t mind sleeping with other people, even Osborne’s wife. Linda and Harry are both looking for love in the wrong places. Their scenes together achieve a true poignancy because Linda, unlike Harry, believes she’s far from perfect and for her to have a guy like him around helps her moral.
That secret disc binds together a web of characters that are self-minded, corrupt, contrived, and delirious to the world outside of their foresight. All made possible by the Coen’s stylistic and unbelievable storytelling that if I were to go any further into detail a true cinematic miracle would be torn away for viewers. But what I can say is that every performance deserves recognition. From the minor characters played by J.K. Simmons and David Rasche, to the major characters played by Clooney, Pitt, McDormand, Swinton, and Malkovich each one of them submits their usual acting ways and to pursue characters that are normally found in cartoons. Their camera work is focused on these characters in a distorted way, at times it seems to be set at their feet looking up, indicating their confusion. But you would be stupid if you didn’t think the Coens weren’t going for something more deep; each character represents our American society and how we tear one another apart if the result will benefit us.
Only the greats seem to taunt themselves. The Coens do just that here. They have guts personified to have their characters admit that they have no clue what is going on in their world. By not doing nothing they actually bite off more than most directors can chew. Burn After Reading is literally the complete package, all of what’s in the arsenal of the Coens is on display, and the result is a work that ranks along side Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and No Country for Old Men.