At a certain time in a director’s life, they’ve made so many movies that each one can be distinguished by the tiniest features in plot, setting, characters, themes, etc. Joel and Ethan Coen, who are among the few directing pairs left in Hollywood, can be added to that list.
“Burn After Reading” is in every way a Coen Brothers movie. After 24 years of filmmaking, the so-called “Two-Headed Director” haven’t lost their touch for making incredibly shocking and original films.
The world of the Coens is a world of idiots. The less intelligent minds focused on in this film are the brain dead fitness instructor Chad Feldheimer (scene-stealing Brad Pitt) and his co-worker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) at a D.C. gym. They stumble upon a CD filled with files that may be the work of Osbourne Cox (the always bizarre John Malkovich); a man just kicked out of the CIA who now wants to write a memoir.
Believing the disc is valuable, Chad decides to return it to Cox in hopes of reward money and Linda joins in, desperate for cash to pay for her plastic surgeries in a goal to reinvent herself. It seems like a perfect plan, but it turns out the files are totally useless. Somewhere along the way, a man named Harry Pfarer (George Clooney) and Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton) get sucked into this elaborate scheme. Trademark Coen Brothers chaos and miscommunication ensues.
It would be impossible to compare any Coen Brothers movie to another without examining the musical score. A Coen movie’s music usually defines something about the characters. The Creedence filled soundtrack of “The Big Lebowski” shows that the Dude is still living in his burned-out hippie days. The music-free “No Country” represents an emptiness and Godless feeling in the world.
“Burn After Reading” contains a score that is at times too intense for moments in which nothing is happening. This is used as a way to trick the audience, and make it impossible to know what will happen next. In this way, the directors succeed in making the audience feel as dumb as the characters.
Some critics have complained that a problem with the movie is that it makes fun of its characters and it is therefore impossible to like any of them. It may be true that the audience is laughing at Chad as Cox punches him hard in the face as Chad begs for a reward. However, it is the directors’ point for the audience to feel a sort of emotional distance from the characters.
The film is meant to be watched as the viewer not being put in the characters’ shoes but instead watching in utter shock from a third person perspective that some people are actually capable of doing things this stupid.
This is different from the type of comedy popularized by Judd Apatow in recent years but in a way, some sort of sympathy can be felt for the characters. It is unfortunate to see that Chad, an overall good guy, doesn’t realize what a terrible trap he’s gotten himself into. Maybe he should learn what blackmail means first.
“Burn After Reading” is Marx Brothers humor laced with a “Maltese Falcon” like conclusion. All this, put together with the Coen Brothers thoughts on the stupidity of humanity, the dangers of miscommunication, fate and freewill, and the idea that people think they can handle everything but actually have no idea what they’re doing.
In a changing world of cinema, the Coen Brothers continue to make movies the way they want to. “Burn” might not earn the Oscars of “No Country” but for stark originality, unpredictability, and great entertainment it will earn a spot on the list of the year’s best films.
This review will also be posted in the upcoming issue of Inklings