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High Level Spy Shit — The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading

December 27, 2008

BURN AFTER READING (2008)
d. Joel & Ethan Coen

The Coens return to comedy a year after their intense thriller No Country For Old Men with a movie that also marks a return of many themes and character-types seen throughout their work.

Burn After Reading’s basic premise revolves around a disgraced Washington analyst (John Malkovich) who, while undergoing a divorce (from Tilda Swinton), has his memoirs and financials on disc end up in the laps of two gym managers (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) who mistakenly believe that it is high-level spy shit. The double pun here concerns the burning of information onto the disc as well as a reference to the book Burn Before Reading, which was about CIA goings-on.

A large part of the fun of the movie is witnessing how the errors of judgement and farce pile up in typical Coen fashion until the last act is a dazzling maze of twists and turns all predicated on mistaken identities and the idiotic choices made by people way in over their heads.

Frances McDormand brings in a brilliant performance as one of the gym managers who, prisoner to her desire for plastic surgery, decides to use the disc as an opportunity for a blackmail scheme. Her character is an amazing study in how everyday people can think they are in control when in reality they are anything but.

Her actions, based on her greed and self-absorption — to the point of idiocy, are a theme constantly explored in the  Coens’ films. They of course always spell disaster for several characters. It’s something we see from Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo to the barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There  to even The Ladykillers.

For example, she unwittingly sends Brad Pitt to his doom by having him break into Malkovich’s house in order to get more information they can use to supply to the Russians. Part of the humour is that her espionage skills all seem to have been culled from an antiquated idea of spy-politics during the Cold War. Even the Russians are baffled by her actions.

Another character whose world falls apart in the Coens’ hands is George Clooney’s. He is cheating on his wife with Tilda Swinton, and, because of his womanizing ways, ends up crossing paths with McDormand. But what sinks him is an event that blindsides him and reveals his inadequacies and mortality. From that point, his paranoia takes over.

It’s all done humorously and with the classic Coen irony that allows us to finger-point and laugh without feeling as if we are implicating ourselves even as we identify with these characters.

Despite the heady and mesmerizing last act where all the jigsaw pieces fall into place with expert handling, the feeling of having been there done that does linger, and I was somewhat disappointed in Brad Pitt’s antics this time around, though his character’s final scene is tense and horrifying.

Overall, a fine effort by the Coens, but not the best. Perhaps on par with The Man Who Wasn’t There in its finely crafted execution and the sense of spiraling dread it creates, but not enough to blow my expectations out of the water.

**1/2 stars.

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