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.