Burn After Reading is funny. After a brooding bout with some dense material in No Country for Old Men, the Coen’s choose to engage in some rambunctious mimicry of the political spy thriller. Featuring a blessing of a cast, Burn After Reading tells the story of an idiotic ensemble, too lost in themselves to find anything worthwhile. The scariest part is — the story is about us. And it’s convincing.
Word has it that Joel and Ethan were particularly inspired by Advise and Consent and Seven Days in May. [The poster design is clearly modeled after the Saul Bass work on The Man With the Golden Arm. The same man did the title design for Advise and Consent.] The brothers’ rich history of deft genre study is not absent here. In deconstructing the political thriller, we are shown a universe not far from our own — one where everyone is too involved with their own desires to be bothered by anything happening around them. The score is full of dramatic percussion. Indeed, the story beats a hollow body. There’s nothing to respond to these characters. Burn After Reading has the intelligence to exclude Washington bureaucracy out of this debate. The government employees are the most intelligent and reliable populace in the film. Still, they are clueless about the incomprehensible ambitions of their constituency. Burn After Reading manages to elaborate on a valuable insight regarding human folly without becoming bogged down by didactic crap.
In addition to the peripheral characters whom the Coen’s occasionally allow to steal a scene, Burn is populated by a cast that is marvelous in name and in performance. It’s full of exciting discoveries. Pitt, Malkovich, Swinton, and Jenkins deliver sensational work. The tradition of strategic director/actor pairing is as old as our technology. Burn is a testament to the virtues of adventurous casting. Pitt’s stupidity isn’t unlike his Tyler Durden, but it is more honest and, frankly, more revealing. Malkovich’s vulgarity takes full advantage of his terrifying snarl. McDormand and Clooney are equally energizing and give their finest work with the brothers. McDormand’s hesitancy and self-consciousness are a maturation of her sticky grin in Fargo. Clooney plays a character not far from Everett, but does so with more paranoia and swagger. A-list casts are cause for suspicion these days, but this is a marvelous example of how good an audacious Hollywood can be.
The Coen brothers have always relied heavily on quirky resonance to their detriment. Their comedy is strongest when played with extended takes and mannered photography. We see much of that in Burn After Reading. They allow us to witness a more natural interaction with some marvelous actors and their expressive faces. However, these filmmakers seem to lean on wide shots as a punctuation, not a narrative fact. Their compositions have such a rich sense of space, but the shots stay in the can. It’s a shame, really. The humor is built on interaction and interplay, not crafty visual manipulation. I only pick nits, though. They can stack up as many close-ups as they want as long as they retain the appreciation for long takes. It’s a lost art in dire need of preservation. Drama is born of the long take.
The brothers function on the assumption that Comedy + Tragedy = Reinvention. It’s a hopeless aspiration, but is it possible that they do it better than anyone else? Their best work does float in the land between straight-faced seriousness and banana-peel slapstick. This seems to be a corollary of insistent genre study. In an effort to subvert and deconstruct classic models, the Coen’s manage to create scenarios with a greater complexity and density than is present in most popular contemporary filmmaking. Burn After Reading doesn’t even seem like a spy film. It has such a deep respect for the dignity of classic convention that the subversion reads like an entirely new creation. Perhaps the slight lack of center in the film is a result of their appreciation for these conventions. Regardless, the Coen brothers are one of the most respectable filmmaking parties at work for precisely this reason.
Burn After Reading functions on steadfast but unforgiving fatalism. This is a common trope in Coen films, but only here is it made entirely explicit. To these filmmakers, human choice is independent of a crushing omnipotence. A CIA agent remarks, “Well, we don’t really know what anyone is after” when presented with a summary of the film’s puzzling event sequence. If there is a thesis to Burn After Reading, it’s that we’re all helpless creatures, floundering and philandering, smothered by our own desire. Like most of the Coen ouevre, the film ultimately becomes a thick tragedy. These characters, idiotic as they may seem, stand in for all of us.
Set against the backdrop of shrugging U.S. bureaucracy, we are all deemed incapable of governing ourselves.
To begin a not-so-warm evaluation of our American interpretation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, it is important to congratulate Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgârd, and Daniel Craig on fine work. Mara is imagining a character that is ripe for praise and potentially less difficult to portray than immediately evident but she does so with precocious poise.
Elements of Fincher’s visual style are commendable. His sense of space and focus lend a volatile but complex depth to every scene. Indeed, certain moments can only remind us of Nick Ray’s unequaled perception of bodies and their relationship to the frame. Only Ray didn’t blur out his backgrounds with such energetic whimsy. Nonetheless, Fincher frequently locates the viewer, both spatially and temporally, by giving an unusually profound gravity to properties and objects. Anything from a set of keys to a lipstick stain can be imbued with moral and informational subtext. There is a scene where a villain (unbeknownst to the audience at that point) pours out a bottle of wine. It’s so mild, but it’s a genius hint. Watch the scene. It’s a marvelous addition. These images are fleeting though, and this director has yet to reach the point where visual keystones are given sustained energy. Fincher’s relationship with technology is ripe with opportunity for a more nuanced interaction — we can only hope that he grows into that connection. Moviegoers will be familiar with the color palette in Dragon Tattoo. Digital color grading has made for a host of gray-blue films. Here, shades of gray have become the status quo. The film does take place in the winter and in Sweden, but the absence of color becomes tiresome by the end of the first act. Fincher’s team of editors and designers do give two scenarios vibrant yellows — flashbacks and Lisbeth’s ultimate swindle. While the shift in color does serve to locate the viewer like the objects do, it doesn’t compensate for the general lack of energy within the frame. The yellows seem to pull from Harriet’s hair and Lisbeth’s wig, making a dubious evaluation of fantasy and history.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo qualifies as a thriller/mystery, replicating the events of a wildly popular Swedish novel by Steig Larsson. It involves a middle aged journalist who is hired to solve a private murder case. He enlists the help of a troubled but gifted young woman. They develop a certain type of relationship. The location of the film within Sweden inspires a shrug. Why not move it to America and change the names? This would be much preferable to the strange international accents that populate the film. Does British English substitute for all European nationalities now? I love the Swedish language. It’s haunting and broad. But the interjections of signs and specific words during Dragon Tattoo are nothing short of alarming.
The film lacks a healthy center of gravity. The dual protagonists deprive it of urgency, as there is no pivot for 80 minutes, a long time. Novels can accomplish this narrative with diligence and patience, but there isn’t enough time for that here. The material is simply too ambitious for a film — Swedish or American filmmakers. Something has been lost in literary adaptations of the post-studio blockbuster era. Filmmakers seem determined to include as much of the full scope of detail as possible. Literary adaptations were more thorough many decades ago. And this was done by being more concise — having someone around who doesn’t know anything about literature to say “Cut it.” While the characterization is quick and successful, the mystery falls apart because of this lack of gravity. In Plummer’s first appearance, he dictates the terms of the plot in precise detail. Fincher’s talent is beyond spoonfeeding. It’s no longer necessary. The frenetic energy of the book is lost in the forceful explanation of the material.
Dragon Tattoo also lacks the energetic montage sequences that highlight Fincher’s best work (Se7en, The Social Network). His education in the distracted tempi of the music video applies itself only when the imagery is a careful collage, of which he is very capable. Dragon Tattoo plays more like a fractured series, functioning at breakneck speed. Indeed, some transitions of scene and critical information sets are lost in this unnecessary visual haste. Even in the credit sequence, we are greeted with rhythmic editing to an interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” as arranged by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The song is a fine choice, working in textual and textural contexts. This team of composers have certainly established themselves as bold and stylish inventors. By now, it has come to seem like their hard, information-aesthetic is married to Fincher’s deep grays. But their gnawing pulse could be precisely what a filmmaker like David Lynch or Paul Thomas Anderson could blossom into a revolutionary context.
It seems imprudent to comment on the thematic content of the film, as that would be better suited for literary review. But in a story with so much potential for speaking critically and deeply about the nature of sexual abuse, it is sickening to see triumph created out of a genuine rape, no matter how disturbing or deserving the victim may be. I’m speaking, of course, about the encounter between Lisbeth and her guardian where she get’s more than the upper hand. It speaks volumes about our relationship with film when savage revenge inspires an enthusiastic response from an audience. In fact, Dragon Tattoo seems to miss a bold opportunity to comment on film and voyeurism in the numerous instances of photographed or recorded violence. Were the filmmakers more intentional about this, the project could have revealed much about the very real and very scary human fascination and preoccupation with observing sex and violence. In our lives, theres no mystery to that story. It’s a fact. And we all pay money to see it every day — on our TV’s, computers, and at the movie theater.