30 Years of Coens: Burn After Reading

Sex farce masquerades as a spy flick in the brothers' blackest comedy.

Focus Features

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers and No Country For Old Men. The landing page for the whole series is here.)

Notes on Burn After Reading (2008)

• Throughout the course of this project, I’ve been chided by readers for ranking their treasured Coen brothers movies too low. Which is of course to be expected: Everyone has their personal favorites, and the Coens have made an awful lot of really good movies. By contrast, this is the entry where I expect to take flack for ranking a movie too high. Which is also to be expected: Burn After Reading is a shockingly dark comedy, populated by characters who are, in their various ways, almost uniformly horrible. That said, I find the movie to be riotously funny and terrifically well-wrought, a unique genre hybrid in which all the pieces fit perfectly. (For those interested, my original review is here; the movie has, if anything, been creeping up my big board of Coens films ever since.)

• Let’s begin with the cast, which is nothing short of extraordinary. The Coens wrote the script with actors George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, and Richard Jenkins specifically in mind; of the principal characters, only Tilda Swinton’s was written first and cast later. It’s an A-list group, and every member brings his or her A game. As Linda Litzke, the cosmetic-surgery-obsessed dingbat, McDormand gets to explore the dark side of the “Minnesota Nice” persona she embodied in Fargo: a monster born equally of narcissism and “positive thinking.” Pitt gives a magnificently loose performance as the doomed, boyish, goofball trainer, Chad Feldheimer. (It’s hard to believe that he was 44 years old when the movie was shot.) Swinton is chillier even than her White Witch of Narnia; Jenkins is painfully vulnerable as the lovelorn gym manager; and Malkovich, playing alcoholic has-been (or never-was) CIA analyst Osbourne Cox, is the obscene, furious engine driving the whole train. As for Clooney, this represents his best work with the Coens. In his first two outings, O Brother and Intolerable Cruelty, he perfected his broad, screwball pantomime. Here, he merges those comic rhythms with his more customary movie-star persona as the charming but pitiable sex addict Harry Pfarrer. As in previous Coens collaborations, he is rewarded for his efforts with another self-mocking vanity tic, in this case his perpetual need to “get a run in.”

• Indeed, vanity is a defining characteristic of most of the film’s characters. (It’s no coincidence that half of them work in a gym.) Cox, the drunken, lazy scion of privilege, with his sailboat and his Princeton dinners, imagines himself not merely to be a great thinker but a counter-establishment rebel and heir to George Kennan. Linda, appalled at the thought that her body would get her “laughed out of Hollywood,” relentlessly pursues her buffet of elective surgeries. (The Coens have said that they based Linda’s name, hairstyle, and surgical appetite on Lewinsky confidante Linda Tripp. In this context, it’s telling that Harry also has a one-night stand with a younger woman identified only as “Monica.”) And Harry papers over his childlike neediness by becoming a compulsive sexual conquistador. The scene in which he calls his wife to plead with her to come home early from her book tour—moments after he’s stormed out of his lover’s house, sex wedge under his arm; and moments before he discovers that said wife is filing for divorce—is hilarious, but only a few clicks of the tonal dial from being heartbreaking.

• Part of the genius of Burn After Reading is the way it employs the somber aesthetics of an espionage thriller to tell a story that is, at its core, a sex farce (though admittedly one with an unusually high body count). Carter Burwell’s dramatic, drum-laden score was inspired by that of the 1964 John Frankenheimer film Seven Days in May. The movie’s look, too, is severe, featuring none of the customary whimsy of the Coens’ other comedies. This was their first film since Miller’s Crossing not to use cinematographer Roger Deakins. Instead, the brothers went with frequent Alfonso Cuarón and Terrence Malick collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki (who went on to win an Oscar for Cuarón’s Gravity last year). Though filmed largely in New York and New Jersey, the movie does a better job than most of conjuring the feel of Washington, D.C. and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs.

• The sense of genre inversion isn’t limited to the look and feel of the film. Most of the characters in the film also mistakenly believe themselves to be caught up in the kind of conspiracy thriller that flourished in the 1970s (Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, Marathon Man, etc.). It never occurs to Harry that the car following him might be driven by a private eye hired by his wife’s attorneys (shades of The Big Lebowski), rather than some government spook. Linda and Chad imagine themselves to be moles-in-training solemnly delivering the worthless CD they found on the gym’s locker room floor to the “cultural attaché” at the Russian embassy (a return performance by Miller’s Crossing’s Olek Krupa). And Cox believes that the buffoons he encounters are somehow involved in the same “political” conspiracy that brought his CIA career to an end. All of these misconceptions interlock with lethal precision—Blood Simple reimagined as a dark joke. Moreover, it can’t be a coincidence that the rampant, if comical, paranoia of the film coincided with escalating real-world concerns about government surveillance—especially given that the movie opens and closes with a zoom in from, and then back out to, the presumed view from a spy satellite.

• Angst regarding Big Brother aside, there is a more fundamental theme of mid-life crisis and ennui running throughout the film. (It could have been titled No Country for Middle-Aged Men and Women.) The gym, the bed-hopping, the retreat into booze—in one way or another, almost every character is turning away from adulthood, regressing or “reinventing” themselves. And they’re doing so at least in part, I’d venture, thanks to the most notable absence in the movie: kids. Not a single one of these 40- and 50-something Washingtonians appears to have any. (The closest we come to parenthood is a scene of visceral hostility between Swinton’s character, a pediatrician, and her young patient.) Trust me when I say that, in real-life, most of these folks would be far too busy with soccer practices and chorus rehearsals and birthday parties to devote half so much energy to adultery or extortion or the construction of elaborate sex machines. But in Burn After Reading, the absence of such domestic obligations is palpable, and the characters are all searching for some new innovation—a makeover, a memoir, a new conquest—to give purpose to their lives.

• Which brings me to perhaps my favorite element of the film: the CIA higher-ups played by David Rasche (as Cox’s former boss, Palmer Smith) and the great J.K. Simmons (who, if there is any justice, received this role as consolation for his appearance in The Ladykillers). Though the two are not explicitly presented as narrators, they ultimately perform a function not unlike that of Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men or Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski. They frame the opening and closing of the movie, with one appearance in between, and as figures of perceived authority they offer the moral context within which to interpret the intervening events. The joke, of course, is that the context they supply is completely, abominably amoral. In place of Jones’s sorrow at the tragedies that have come to pass, we instead have a heartless bureaucratic handwashing. Midway through the film Simmons tells Rasche to “Report back to me, I dunno … when it makes sense.” But nothing makes sense until the final scene—my favorite, I confess—when most of the movie’s characters are dead, comatose, or en route to Venezuela. (The cut from Malkovich's’s horrifying hatchet-wielding on the streets of Georgetown to Simmons’s “Wait, wait a minute” interruption is remarkably wicked, and wickedly funny.) “What did we learn, Palmer?” Simmons asks. “I don’t know, sir.” “I don’t fucking know either. I guess we learned not to do it again … But I’m fucked if I know what we did.” I certainly understand why the bleak, black humor of Burn After Reading is not everyone’s cup of tea. But I hope I’ve manged to convey a sense of why, somewhat to my own surprise, it’s mine.

Et Cetera:

Where I rank Burn After Reading among Coens films: #5 (out of 16)

Where I rank its score, by Carter Burwell, among Coens scores by Carter Burwell: #6

Best line: “Osbourne Cox? I thought you might be concerned about the security of your shit.”

Best visual: Chad rocking out (see photo at top)

Best sound: Cox cracking the ice tray at ten ‘til five

Notable locales: Washington, D.C. and its suburbs

Notable Influences: John Frankenheimer, Allen Drury

Drinking-game-suitable catchphrase: “get a run in”

Dream sequence(s): No

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: No

Tuchman Marsh, divorce attorneys: Yes

Deranged hair: Yes (Chad)

Car T-boned: Yes (the investigator for Tuchman Marsh)

Number of characters who vomit: Zero

Next up: A Serious Man