How do you even make a movie as good as Burn After Reading? I suppose the simple answer is: be the Coen brothers. I make no secret of the fact that Ethan and Joel Coen are probably my favourite filmmakers of all time, and while their grand, canonised works—Fargo, No Country For Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis—are of course as good, if not better, than everyone says, it’s sometimes in the brothers’ ‘lesser’ pieces that you can see their genius really shine.
So it is with 2008’s Burn After Reading, which came hot on the heels of the previous year’s No Country For Old Men. While the Coen brothers’ technical brilliance is not something that anyone can really deny, their particular sensibilities—dark humour, depictions of a seemingly uncaring universe, often unconventional narratives—are much less universal. Their movies are, generally speaking, not for everyone. No Country For Old Men was different. Here was a film that traded in most of the brothers’ typical tropes, and yet despite that still managed to break them through to crowds outside of their home turf. It was a film beloved pretty much across the board, with Coen Brothers True Believers getting what they always crave: A Coens movie, any Coens movie, gimme gimme gimme; and those who do not consider themselves part of the flock being treated to a brilliantly tense and thrilling existentialist neo-Western in which they could get swept up in, despite the stylistic touches that might otherwise have been alienating to them. I spoke to people who had had a Coens-shaped chip on their shoulders for years, and even they had to begrudgingly admit just how much they had enjoyed No Country.
Anticipating the brothers’ follow-up to that movie, then, would turn into a game of different endings for the two camps. For those viewers relatively unfamiliar with the brothers’ body of work but suddenly finding themselves craving more after No Country, Burn After Reading must’ve seemed like a slap in the face. A cold, off-smelling cup of water jolting them out of a beautiful dream. What was this weird and offbeat nonsense? Why were these A-list stars running around behaving like jackasses, acting out a plot that couldn’t even seem to give a shit about itself? For Coen aficionados, however, oh what a treat it was. You don’t have to be an expert to know that the brothers have a deep and abiding love of screwball. It runs thick through the DNA of their work, and even in their darkest stories they often find room for it. Broadly speaking, it could be said that the filmmakers oscillate between two poles—bouncing back and forth between more serious, gritty drama, and lighter, absurdist fare: Blood Simple to Raising Arizona; Fargo to The Big Lebowski; Inside Llewyn Davis to Hail, Caesar! Of course they very rarely dive fully into only one camp, and almost all of their features will contain elements of both, but nevertheless the rough demarcation holds.
Standing here a decade later, it’s very pleasing to see just how beautifully No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading work together. Watch them both on the same day. It’s remarkable how much of a full complement of tone and intent they make up. And while I’m not saying that the No Country-Burn axis constitutes the best of the Coens’ loose duologies (though I’m not not saying that either), I am hereby proclaiming that Burn After Reading is one hundred percent a comedic masterpiece. One that reveals itself to be better and better with each passing year, and that belies the not nearly rapturous enough reception it was greeted with upon release.
It all begins very much like a Bourne-style spy movie, with a satellite’s point of view tracking across the continental United States and eventually zooming into the nation’s capital. For a minute you could be forgiven for thinking that you are watching an actual spy film, were it not for the music. On the surface it seems fine: dramatic, percussive, self-important. But there’s something about it. It’s just a tad too loud, a little bit too dramatic. It doesn’t feel like spoof music exactly; more like somebody attempting to hit the marks of the genre, and failing by going too far. This is by design. The Coen brothers and their long-time musical collaborator Carter Burwell wanted to have a musical score that would be, according to Joel Coen, ‘big and bombastic, something important sounding but absolutely meaningless’. They succeeded wonderfully, and hearing it straight away in the opening sets you up for exactly what you’re about to see: A gallery of blowhards, running around DC, acting and talking big, trying to sound important, and yet through it all fundamentally signifying nothing. It’s one of the great joys of the movie—observing these bloated windbags and self-important buffoons with that ominous, loud, percussive score playing in the background. This juxtaposition sits at the heart of the film, and it’s wonderful. George Clooney’s manically paranoid expressions foregrounded against music you would usually expect from a bad James Bond movie is a sight that’s never not hilarious.
The framing device of Burn After Reading—an arbitrary slice of intelligence-gathering life, told from the point of view of an intelligence agency too jaded and apathetic to give enough of a shit about these unimportant morons—was a touch of pure Coen-esque magic. Everyone is under surveillance here, and the CIA superior overseeing things (a pitch perfect JK Simmons) and occasionally being updated on essentially what is happening in the movie he is himself in is a particular highlight—as are his exchanges with the CIA office tasked with keeping him posted:
CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer?
CIA Officer: I don’t know, sir.
CIA Superior: I don’t fuckin’ know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.
CIA Officer: Yes, sir.
CIA Superior: I’m fucked if I know what we did.
CIA Officer: Yes, sir, it’s, uh, hard to say.
CIA Superior: Jesus Fucking Christ.
But while the framing device is excellent, the real Coen genius shows itself once we actually get to know these characters. The brothers write (and shoot) scripts that are unlike anything produced by anybody else. They sit somewhere halfway between the hyper-realist style of someone like Noah Baumbach and the stylised fun of, say, Quentin Tarantino. Their dialogues are alive with rhythm and filled with character-revealing idiosyncrasies. Take the third scene of the movie as an example. Here, three out of five of the main characters are shown interacting at a dinner party, and within less than two minutes we get to see exactly what they are like, and how they relate to one another. Power dynamics are revealed, insecurities laid bare.
As a side note: It may just be me, but if the only roles George Clooney ever played for the rest of his life were nervy, too-energetic men with minimum control of their own face, then I would probably be okay with that.
Clooney, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt. Those are our five main protagonists in Burn After Reading and that is also what you call a stacked bloody cast. Because of the Coens’ reputation, they can pretty much get anyone they want for their projects, and here, as per usual, they picked perfectly. Because while the script is ingenious and the camera work and editing flawless, the real allure is watching these top tier performers act out the brothers’ slightly fantastic reality. Famously, the sets on Coen brothers movies are not ad-lib friendly. The lines are so tightly and meticulously written and the rhythm is worked out perfectly to the point where it all resembles a blueprint for a skyscraper. In other words, that shit is going up exactly as the plans say. Deviate at your peril. You just hire some great builders, and get on with it.
Keeping with the metaphor, it’s hard to say which one of the builders acquits themselves with most aplomb. Burn After Reading remains one of the more impressive ensemble casts assembled in recent memory, and each time I watch it I have a different favourite. Most recently it has been bug-eyed, slimy Clooney. His role, like all of the other main ones (apart from Swinton’s), was written with the actor in mind, and it shows. Clooney embodies it, hilariously and selflessly. He commits fully to the ridiculous. Despite that, however, for the longest time my no-contest pick of the bunch was Brad Pitt. I still think that Chad Feldheimer, the dim-witted personal trainer, might be the best performance of Pitt’s career. Pitt has said of the role that, ‘After reading the part, which they said was hand-written for myself, I was not sure if I should be flattered or insulted.’ However Pitt may or may not have felt about the role, what he did do in the end was help create an absolute non-stop barrage of ridiculous body movements, incredible dim facial expressions, and juvenile line readings that make me laugh instantly whenever I think of them. God bless Chad Feldheimer, and a shiny nickel to Brad Pitt for bringing to life one of the great comic characters of our time.
But despite Pitt’s brilliance, I can virtually guarantee that the next time I watch Burn After Reading I will have another favourite. Whether it be the flawless Frances McDormand’s empathetic turn as Linda Litzke; Tilda Swinton’s cold-as-ice and indignant Katie Cox; or John Malkovich’s alcoholic, superiority complex-ed man-child, Osborne Cox (and his pretentious pronunciation of the word ‘memoir’)—the movie is such an embarrassment of character riches so as to still feel dense and alive, almost ten years after its release.
Though the tangled web of intrigue and infidelity that these bloviating buffoons find themselves in is the central pillar of the film, it is the smaller things that really makes it all sing. Very early on in the movie, Tilda Swinton’s Katie Cox decides to initiate divorce proceedings against her husband Osborne (Malkovich), and the minute-and-a-half scene with her divorce lawyer is pure Coens magic. Where other filmmakers might have just glossed over a scene like this or used it as a perfunctory plot point, the Coens cast actor J.R. Horne, and they told him to absolutely eat the scene up.
I just love this man, so in love with the drama of it all. He’s so pleased with his way with words and yet he still hilariously falters on as banal a word as ‘feet’. He’s sat opposite Swinton being full-on Swinton, and yet he’s the star of the show. It’s just how the Coen brothers do things.
The same thing goes for the opening of the movie, in which we’re introduced to Osborne and the CIA officer who reports to JK Simmons. He also happens to be Osborne’s superior. In this scene, which sets off the chain of events to follow, Osborne finds out he is being demoted for having a drinking problem. Enraged and indignant, he makes a scene, calls it a ‘crucifixion’ (while acting that ancient punishment out), and then he angrily quits and storms out. But before all that, when he first sits down, the scene is framed this way:
It’s pretty clear to us from that what is about to happen. And it’s all very, very funny. The way the assembled staff try to break it gently to Osborne; the terrible way he reacts. But the best bit comes right at the end, and it’s something that illustrates another facet of the Coens craft, and why Burn After Reading is a pure comedic masterpiece. The brothers know exactly how long to hold a shot, and when to end a scene. See it goes like this: Osborne sits down, makes small talk, gets the news, has a tantrum, and then storms out. For most people that would be the scene. Everything that needed to be done has already been done. But not the Coen brothers. No, they show the door slamming shut behind Osborne, and then hold the shot for just a second longer to give the CIA officer in the back a chance to react to Osborne’s little drama show:
It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Header Image Source: Focus Features