Shovelling the Screen: Burn After Reading



Burn After Reading

US. 2008. The Coen Brothers

What is explicitly farce and largely nonsensical turns out be a brilliant representation of an America stuffed with greed and ignorance, yet this is frightfully accurate and, from the get go, we have all met people like the profligate and covetous characters in this film. It is a screwball comedy, but it is also a tangible thriller in which the Coen’s wield blunt instruments and set in motion the desires and volatility of individuals who all have sex with one another. It is clear were the hullabaloo and wit lies. And it is overtly obvious, yet by its very explicit nature subtle, that the ideology of a growing national inanity takes place.

The film opens with an aerial map of the U.S as the camera begins to zoom in and eventually lands with a thud at the CIA headquarters. This shot is implicit to the nature of this film; it is a small world and one full of small-minded and mad human beings. It is ironic then that the film begins at the CIA headquarters with perhaps the maddest and most irritable of them all, the perpetually pissed-off analyst Osborne Cox, played by a zany John Malkovich. The film comes full circle when it is apparent that nothing does really make any sense down here on earth (ironically again we are at the CIA headquarters) and we zoom back out to the peaceful outer space, freed from humankind.

Predictably, tailed with mix reviews, it is the A-game actors that save the film for most of the critics. The characters and their dialogue are remarkably punchy and fresh – certainly Brad Pitt shows a much-loved new side to his copious acting abilities – however, the plot is equally rewarding. Whilst the film may dip in and out of various plotlines, it is precisely this density that strikes a chord with much of everyday life; it is the perplexing and, therefore beguiling essence that the Coen’s are after. The more you think about everything that happens in this movie, the more you find it funny, but the more you intrinsically relate to it. This isn’t to say that plot isn’t perfectly logical, on the contrary, but it is the way the Coen’s eradicate each beat, sequence and act with such perspicacity and delight and the way that every scene strikes the core of each character that brings such a laxative construct to a climatic blast of events.

There are subtle contradictions in my words, but this is precisely why I am enticed and intrigued by this film. The rest of Hollywood would run scared, but the Coen’s manage to supress any rebuke and instead make mincemeat out of just about everything. Nearly everything in life, if we read it hard enough, lingers to contradict, and a film that pricks my mind into such a state (call it a transcendence) serves to be a truly great film.

So, returning to conventional evaluation, the film comprises a wonderful cast who fit their roles delightfully. Tilda Swinton is simply fierce and indissoluble with talent, George Clooney and Frances McDormand are stimulating in their ‘’search’ (of which is carried out in all the wrong places) with a tint of poignancy, Richard Jenkins is a lungful of clean air, John Malkovich is wild and at the top of his wacky game and all the while Brad Pitt is racing up the rear with what must be electrical currents surging through his body.

You would expect then that most of the humour comes at the expense of the characters, yes no one is redeemable and they are all mocked, but the humour is coupled to their environment and sequences of the narrative. In fact, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography hits the mark for every moment of hilarity and Jess Gonchor’s production design is indispensable to every motion of laughter. The filmmaker’s language is always imperative to creating humour, not just characters blundering around wildly.

The concepts implicit in this film become principal to the Coen’s later film A Serious Man. A film where one man struggles indefinitely to find meaning in life and whilst that film isn’t as rich in story and eccentricity it is a great step forward into the ‘unknown’. One begins to conclude that the Coen’s themselves must be God.


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