by TOM NIXON
Although they run the gamut from brooding thriller to screwball satire the Coen formula tends to remain the same; place a sympathetic protagonist in a strange, morally vacuous world, let them make a mistake and then capture the absurdity that results. In this ensemble piece we have numerous protagonists many of whom aren’t immediately sympathetic, but as they’re dragged into this bizarre “clusterfuck” (as described by J.K. Simmons’ nameless CIA boss) of a plot it becomes apparent that as idiotic as these characters may be, they’re driven by the same things as everybody else: lust, loneliness, wealth and a general inability to make any sense of their lives.
On a superficial level it’s hard to describe exactly what Burn After Reading is about. It involves the CIA and the Russians, although everything that happens is completely trivial to each of these parties. It involves broken marriages, ingenious sexual contraptions, online dating and incompetent blackmail. The general picture consists of gym employees Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) chancing upon a disc containing newly fired CIA agent Osbourne Cox’s memoirs, mistaking its contents for important secret documents. Meanwhile Harry Pfarer (George Clooney), who happens also to be sleeping with Osbourne’s wife (Tilda Swinton), goes on a date with Linda. Hilarious nonsense ensues.
As with the harsh windswept plains of No Country For Old Men this world is increasingly a chaos beyond anyone’s control, where lives get ruined without any understanding of how it all started. If No Country… was an elegy to the days of moral certainties then Burn After Reading exemplifies the inevitability of their demise – every mistake is so apparently miniscule it’s barely perceptible with hindsight, let alone preventable. As with the former film much of the climax occurs off screen, described with a kind of baffled amusement by the CIA boss, bringing forth the realization that in the grand scheme of things none of the events was even remotely significant. The framing shots impress upon us the smallness of the film’s scale, zooming in from a bird’s eye view of the Earth, then out again. All the deaths, laughs, torment and tears barely constitute a pimple on America’s backside.
The casting is terrific; it’s the ease of Clooney and Pitt which classes them among the foremost stars of our era. They aren’t just willing to do anything and everything sans posturing or pretension; that’s where they’re most comfortable. Pitt’s played the quirky goofball before and his character is perhaps the most one-dimensional, but he taps right into the tone of the movie, whilst Clooney’s rambling attempts at smoothness are tinged with and eventually usurped by a brilliant paranoid mania. Tilda Swinton is just about the best icy bitch in film right now, and it says a lot about John Malkovich that even his twentieth disbelieving “what the fuck?!” is funny as hell. Perhaps best of all is Frances McDormand, whose dopey warmth masking hints of lonely desperation never fails to engage.
Despite its haphazard narrative and dizzying pace Burn After Reading is a work of great restraint wherein barely a second goes to waste. Like other modern greats Lynch and Cronenberg the Coens always stay one step ahead – their sense of audience expectation and reaction is so keen they can manipulate it effortlessly, exploiting and reshaping clichés rather than simply avoiding them. They’re the masters of writing lines which wouldn’t be funny in any other context, but become ridiculously so contrasted against a backdrop simultaneously familiar and completely nuts. Like most of their screwball affairs Burn After Reading grabs on to a particular tone and milks every last drop, no doubt polarizing those who watch it. If you’re anything like me you’ll be grinning ear to ear from start to finish.