As we enter the new decade with a temporary Coen Brothers absence, surrounded with uncertainty of their next project, the circumstances quietly beg for us to look at their most enigmatic creation: Burn After Reading (2008). The starkly lit, wittily written, personality disorder-ism of Burn After Reading is a love letter to narcissism, and its processes beg the question: are you paying attention?
The creative duo was fresh out of the wake of No Country For Old Men (2007), another film that delved into genre-bipolarism, portraying a transcendence from neo-western to film noir, which was like watching a film mature over the course of its runtime. However, Burn After Reading was a little less mature and a little more schizophrenic, being shot, lit and scored like a cynical, shadowed noir-thriller, whilst the events occurring merely being a big, sexual miscommunication to both the audience and the characters.
Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt play Linda and Chad, bubbly and energetic gym-workers who stumble upon the digital memoires of recently dismissed C.I.A. worker, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). Their desperation to escape mid-life mundanity ensues the assumption that these memoires are “some real classified shit,” attempting to blackmail Osborne to pay for Linda’s excessive plastic surgeries. The C.I.A. gets involved after Linda and Chad take the memoires to the Russians, and Osborne’s confusion by this is continually vaulted by alcoholism and marital issues, searching for answers in the basements of boats and bottles.
Meanwhile, George Clooney returns to the Coen Bros. payroll to play Harry: a paranoid, anaphylactic, Government buff-boy who’s paranoid about everything bar his anaphylaxis. Despite the wedding ring, his toey and unfaithful nature lead him to find Linda on an online dating website, whilst also three-timing his wife with Osborne’s terrifying partner, Katie (Tilda Swinton); thus, begins the intricate rhapsody that intertwines the ensemble.
The plot is as manic as it sounds on paper, and the obscurity of it all leaves the characters creating rambunctious conspiracy theories of “who’s following who.” The schizophrenic chaos that ensues on screen is only comprehensible to the audience because the Coen Brothers are wiz-kids at pacing; nothing seems to muddle, unless you try to explain it. This bizarre portrayal of what happens when one lets their assumptions fly is just as evident in the plot as it is in the film’s score and cinematography, the audience now becoming part of the paranoia and wondering what genre movie they’re actually watching.
The irony of a shadowed basement, and low-toned strings playing as Harry reveals a sybian disguised as a rocking-chair to Linda is a perfect summary of the unusual labyrinth we’re all involved in.
Whilst Burn After Reading sounds like a victim of its own enigma, it’s the incredible writing and direction from both Joel and Ethan Coen that never cause the film to trip over itself. It flows, and the puzzle makes sense to us. It’s only when we view it on an objective level, portrayed in the C.I.A. supervisors’ room, that we agree with J.K. Simmons and think “Jesus, what a clusterf*ck.”
I hope when Clooney arrives in Venezuela, he gets a run in.
This is one of the best.