The View From Here

First Look -- The Coens' Burn After Reading

Michael Bonner

At the tail end of 2006, I interviewed George Clooney in New York for our short-lived and sadly missed sister title, UNCUT DVD. It was around the time of Good Night, And Good Luck and Syriana, two movies that conspicuously harked back to the Seventies’ cinema of conscience. Syriana, particularly, referenced the political thrillers of the era, and during a lively, 40-minute conversation the man who in another life was the voice of Sparky the gay dog in South Park spoke enthusiastically about his love of great movies like Dr Strangelove, Network and All The President’s Men, and especially the classic alienated heroes from ‘60s and ‘70s cinema.

There is, perhaps, something of Clooney playing around with that persona here in Burn After Reading, his third movie with Joel and Ethan Coen. Clooney – bearded like he was in Syriana – plays Federal Marshall Harry Pfarrer, married but with a taste for adultery, wooing a string of women via the Internet. He’s juggling affairs with icy Katie (Tilda Swinton), wife of ex-CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), and gym worker Linda Lizke (Frances McDormand). It’s Linda, and her colleague Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), who find a disc containing Cox’s memoirs in a gym locker room and set in motion an attempted blackmail scam that provides Burn After Reading with its screwy plot. One of the things the Coens seem to take great delight with in their movies is seeing what happens when a bunch of idiots chase a pile of cash; usually with a disastrous outcome for all concerned.

And at one point, an exasperated Cox describes the entire cast as “a league of morons”, which strikes me as wholly accurate. Chad, particularly, is a mouth-breathing moron of the first water. Vain, self-delusional and clearly without two brain cells to rub together, it’s brilliant to see Pitt doing this kind of hectic farce. Clooney, too, seems happy to send up his matinee star rep as Harry; riddled with insecurities and nowhere near the cool, composed stud he envisions himself to be. The plot itself proves to be as ridiculously complex and entertaining as you’d expect from the Coens. As JK Simmons’ CIA boss says on being appraised of the various scams and convoluted inter-personal relationships: “Watch them, see what they do. And let me know when it all makes sense.”

Coming off the back of their Oscar haul for No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading has provided the Coens with their biggest box office to date. And while Burn After Reading – as hilarious as it is – is no Fargo or Big Lebowski (let’s face it: what could be..?) it’s still a fantastically diverting 95 minutes. It seems incredible to me the ease with which they can cram so much into such a slender running time, but make it look so easy. Stylistically, there's perhaps only a few truly Coenesque moment. An opening shot of Earth from a surveillance satellite that zooms down into a CIA office in Washington echoes the opening shot from the head of a gargoyle on a Mississippi river bridge, overlooking barges as they deliver trash to an island dump in the delta. There's a nice sequence, too, where a camera at ground level follows a pair of feet walking across a number of different floor surfaces, some superb sound editing as the shoes cross from concrete to wood to carpet.

But, certainly thematically, Burn After Reading is Coens through and through, particularly the money thing. In fact, I'm hard pushed to think of a Coens film that hasn’t been sparked by the pursuit of money. As you watch this gormless bunch of characters - most of whom, incidentally, are totally unlikable - murder and scam their way to what you assume won't be an entirely happy ending, you could, in fact, almost read Coens films as modern day versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury exemplums; Radix malorum est cupiditas, money is the root of all evil.

Burn After Reading opens in the UK on October 17. You can see the trailer here.


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