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Non-Review Review: Burn After Reading

I caught Burn After Reading last night and sat down with my aunt and uncle to watch it. Sure enough, it was as divisive among us as it was among everyone else – my aunt hated it, my uncle enjoyed it and I loved it. My aunt claimed nothing happened and the cast was full of over-actors, my uncle was relatively satisfied with his viewing experience and I was delighted to see the funnest Coen Brothers film since The Big Lebowski.

Artist's interpretation of Darren enjoying this film. Note: Hunkiness may be exaggerated.

Artist's interpretation of Darren enjoying this film. Note: Hunkiness may be exaggerated.

Apparently the brothers wrote the script for this at the same time that they were drafting No Country for Old Men – even working on them on alternate days. It makes sense, as the two films could be more thoroughly different in tone, but share the same themes of the randomness of human behaviour. A lot of people were surprised – probably even understandably – that the film isn’t as deep or as moving as No Country For Old Men, but I’d suggest that few films are. It’s a somewhat low key movie for the pair, and seems far more comfortable.

There is the sense throughout the film that everybody is operating within their comfort zone. And that’s not a bad thing when you’re talking about talent like this. The movie is populated with all manner of quirky characters and, though none are truly as memorable as Walter or The Dude in The Big Lebowski or Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men or Marge from Fargo, they all manage to seem fully realised. Sure, the film makes them larger than life with their little quirks or idiosyncrasies, but don’t all Coen Brothers movies?

It’s odd that we find ourselves talking about this film in relation to its bigger, darker, older brother No Country for Old Men rather than its spiritual companions within the Coens’ filmography – Intolerable Cruelty or O Brother, Where Art Thou? Maybe it’s because that previous film won the Best Picture Oscar and focused even more attention than ever on the film makers, or maybe it’s because the two films are very closely linked, thematically.

For all the talk about the comedy and the lightness and the larger-than-life properties of the cast and characters, the film says something about the modern way of life – much as No Country For Old Men did. Both plots are propelled by unlikely happenstance putting something (seemingly) valuable into the hands of a confused protagonist and watching chaos ensue around them. Whereas No Country For Old Men explored the violence that comes with randomness, here it’s the stupidity that accompanies the randomness.

Everyone in the film is an idiot, from the smooth-talking sky marshal Harry to the Princeton graduate Archibold. They’re all just as stupid as Brad Pitt’s airhead fitness instructor: the only difference is that he seems to realise his place in the world. Despite the statements on idiocy that are delivered from Cox (his outright condemnation of it), the Coen Brothers don’t seem to condemn ignorance or idiocy outright – it isn’t harmful not to know everything. Chad is happy in his little world and is fundamental a good guy. He doesn’t think about money when it comes to returning the disk (pointing out the irony of calling the Good Samaritan Tax a tax if it’s voluntary). It’s when the ambitious Linda sees it as a means to achieving her own goals (cosmetic surgery) that things get complicated.

Small things get gradually bigger and bigger. Harry is convinced that the government is watching him. Chad and Linda assume that Archibald’s memoirs and bank statements are valuable. Things spiral out of control. People make assumptions based on incomplete data. People lie to each other – whether it’s Harry’s lies to his mistress(es) or Archibold’s lies about how he left his job – making the truth even harder to gleam. None of the characters are looking for anything of value – Linda wants to be pretty, Harry wants sex not love, Archibold wants some measure of revenge and money. When a divorce lawyer suggests that maybe Archibold’s wife try to make their marriage ork, it’s merely a formality. She (and the lawyer) don’t want the marriage to work. They want the money.

Of course, this comedy of misinformation grows in scale and mass as the more powerful of the players (or those willing to act as if they know what’s happening) take matters into their own hands. That’s when good people get hurt. Given that that the movie focuses on he CIA (the intelligence community -geddit?) it’s hard not to read this as a cleverly made point. In a world where nobody knows nothing, it’s the people who are willing to act on what they know who are really dangerous. One of the film’s more subtly jokes acknowledges the fact that the staff at the Russian embassy actually speak better English than Linda and Chad.

Still, perhaps that’s too much thought being put into the film, but it’s hard not to notice all these elements at play. The brothers take a genre that they’ve shown an interest in in the past – the comedy of errors – and they apply absolute logic to it. There is not one event in the enitre movie that is not based upon a lie, a misconception or a misunderstanding.

As I mentioned at the start, everyone is in their comfort zone here. But in a good way. Frances McDormand is made of awesome, as per usual. Brad Pitt and George Clooney are fantastic supporting players (though I won’t pretend this is their best work). Riochard Jenkins is typically understated and Twilda Swinton is reliably cold. JK Simmons is always fun (even in a small role) and Malkovich is always at his best when slightly unhinged.

Well worth a look. I think time will be far kinder to this film than critics were on its initial release.

One Response

  1. The first time I saw “Burn After Reading” I was certain I hated it. Then I watched it again and everything clicked. Sure, it’s no “Big Lebowski,” but there are great characters — you can’t not love Frances McDormand as Linda, and Brad Pitt is GENIUS as Chad — and that screwball storyline. Good stuff.

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