Thursday, 1 July 2010

Burn After Reading (2008)

Following their Oscar Scoop in '98, Joel and Ethan Coen surprised many with this dark, if somewhat slighter outing. Burn After Reading marks their thirteenth outing - a bad omen? Depends who you ask.

It also marks the return of George Clooney to the Coen fold for the third time (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty coming before). Ever-dependable Frances McDormand is here, too, also joined by Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton and John Malkovitch. Richard Jenkins gets an honorable mention here; his name was omitted from the movie poster and DVD packaging, but is as essential to the story as everyone else.

Burn After Reading is an ensemble piece and all principals get roughly equal screen time, each delivering great performances, but it's probably Pitt's performance that lingers longest - a goofy turn as a dim-witted, over-energised gym instructor.

The Plot

The backbone of the story concerns a stolen disc which may or may not contain sensitive CIA intelligence - carelessly left in a gym locker, it falls into the hands of Pitt and McDormand, who decide to trace the owner, then blackmail them for it, more out of excitement than real malice. McDormand's character is obsessed with the idea of cosmetic surgery, and with every other financial avenue a dead-end, the disc appears like a gift from the gods.

Plot isn't the primary interest here, though. What's on offer here is a combination of spy movie pastiche, combined with an examination of middle-aged mores: even though (initially) disconnected, all the characters share a frustration with where their lives have gone, and strive to find better.

 Tilda Swinton plays a very convincing harridan.

Malkovitch seethes frustrated, impotent anger from every pore, every other word an expletive as he rages against the little men of the world; marginalised by his superiors, he quits his relatively senior position in the CIA ('third-level clearance'), telling his incredulous wife (Tilda Swinton) that he plans to write his memoirs instead. This gets as far as him hubristically narrating nonsense into a Dictaphone. Ultimately, these anecdotes end up as text, saved to the disc that will fall into the wrong hands.

So wrapped up in his world, he fails to notice Swinton's boredom, never suspecting her affair with Clooney, a boyish, sex-addicted buffoon who allows Swanson to think he's planning a new life with her. Only, he's not really likely to leave his wife, a successful author on an endless series of book launches - it just gives him plenty of time to chase skirt.

Various contrivances allow these disparate characters to bump into one another, sometimes romantically; occasionally, with violence. McDormand's ill-conceived plan to ransom off the disc creates a vortex, pulling in the rest of the cast.

 Malk turns the AngerFrenzy up to ten. Again. Which is a good thing.


Coen Themes

Expectations were high when Burn After Reading arrived at theatres. Perhaps No Country For Old Men had raised the bar a little too high; compared to that movie, Burn After Reading appears to be a breezier affair. Where the Coen's previous thrillers subverted genres (The Big Lebowski turned Chandleresque hardboiled fiction on it's head; The Man Who Wasn't There celebrated the works of James M. Cain), Burn After Reading tips a nod to espionage cinema.

Carter Burwell's excellent score evokes all the tension of a heavyweight thriller, puncuating exterior scenes shot through a voyeuristic lens as if this were a Cold War drama. The fun here is the banality of it all - there is no spy element, only the fumblings of idiocy. As with many other Coen films, this is an examination of the stupidity of people, of best-laid plans spectacularly failing.

And then there's the violence. When it happens, it happens suddenly, shockingly; scenes that start out as almost slapstick quickly turn into ugly, brutal aggression.

Summing Up

A DVD release of a movie like Burn After Reading allows us some distance from the expectations prior to a theatrical release. This certainly isn't the disaster some reviewers would have us think - OK, so it isn't as funny as Lebowski, nor as meticulous as The Man Who Wasn't There. It lacks the wonderful cinematography of Roger Deakins, who had become something of a fixture to previous Coen projects.

But Burn After Reading isn't trying that hard. It's a suburban tale, the focus turned onto the players rather than the setting. It's certainly less challenging than previous efforts - but that's no bad thing. It isn't a 'light' movie, though - the final scenes are pitch black and as cynical as anything else the brothers have offered up before.

1 comment:

  1. I've always been a BIG fan of the Coen Brothers and agree with you that there was "fun in the banality of it all" however, overall I was left a bit un-satisfied. I'm sure that stemmed from expecting more from them or comparing it to previous work.