Burn After Reading

Huzzah! A proper Coen Brothers film!

Released in 2008, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 29 Oct 2008 by Scott Morris
Burn After Reading image

Now, I cannot for the life of me work out an explanation of the plot of the latest Coen brothers outing that makes it in any way compelling, so let's lightly gloss over it. Indeed it seems that the whole point of the plot is that no one character actually understands what's going on completely. The whole thing comes across as something of a cross between The Big Lebowski, The Good Shepherd and some light Ealing comedy farce. And is awesome.

I think the closest comparison I can come up with is Lebowski, as more than any other recent Coen film the narrative takes a very definite back seat to the trick of throwing a bunch of interesting, quirky characters and bouncing them off each other. The discovery of what is thought to be sensitive CIA information in Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt's gym and their less than advisable idea to blackmail ex-agent John Malkovich sets off a increasingly violent shitstorm of consequences, coincidences and rising paranoia and when coupled to all of the above's messy love lives produces a story that's often simply strange more than anything else.

It's not as funny as The Big Lebowski, but it's not intended to be, as best as I can gather. It's a thriller strained through the Coen's unique quirks, and it's only really in the latter stages where things go completely off the rails that it becomes really funny.

Burn After Reading image

There's perhaps some deeper comment on society lurking in here that I'm too stupid to understand, but again like Lebowski it delights in smaller skits that add up to something approaching a story almost more by accident than design. It's success is predicated almost entirely on the tremendous performances from an almost ludicrously talented cast.

As every character involved heads further down a path that invites twitchy paranoia and outright insanity, everyone just gets better and better. You can practically each through the screen and feel the tinfoil hats. Coupled with the usual Coen character touches such as George Clooney's occasional obsession with flooring materials, this is another film from them that's deeply enjoyable for almost entirely unquantifiable reasons.

As someone who wasn't entirely on-board with the fawning over No Country For Old Men, I guess I get to say that it's in fact this film that marks a return to form for the Coens. There is, perhaps, a justifiable criticism of this as returning rather firmly to the Generic Coen Formula, but if it's that or another The Ladykillers I'd choose this in a heartbeat.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Ethan Coen
Joel Coen
Cast list:
George Clooney (Harry Pfarrer)
Frances McDormand (Linda Litzke)
John Malkovich (Osbourne Cox)
Tilda Swinton (Katie Cox)
Brad Pitt (Chad Feldheimer)
Richard Jenkins (Ted Treffon)
David Rasche (CIA Officer)
J.K. Simmons (CIA Superior)