Saturday, September 13, 2008

Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading is a kind of silly, twisted follow-up to the Coen brothers' last film, the relentlessly grim Western fable No Country For Old Men. Despite the tonal differences, both films place ordinary (if somewhat dim-witted) folks into a position where they are suddenly poised to have a lot of money, a situation that brings considerable violence into their previously routine lives. But the relationship between the two films is more than just a simplistic dichotomy between light and dark, comedy and tragedy, silly and serious; in their own ways, both films are tragedies, although tragedies of very different types. In No Country, violence enters the lives of the characters through a force of evil, the remorseless assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a truly terrifying individual whose murderous rampage nevertheless adheres to his own warped moral code. There are no such evil characters in Burn After Reading, in which the violence arises neither from evil men nor moral failures, but from a combination of profound stupidity, rampant paranoia, and institutional cluelessness and indifference to consequences.

In other words, it's a movie about America's intelligence system. The rambling plot wanders, sometimes aimlessly, around a loose set of castoffs from the CIA and the State Department, and the people they intersect with when a disc possibly containing secret intelligence information winds up in the hands of the effervescent gym employees Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt). The setup promises hilarity, and to some extent it delivers, but the Coens keep the humor mostly low-key and subtle, rooted in the nuances of the actors' performances — it's all about the bubbly, earnest, but totally blockheaded stubbornness of Linda, or the head-bobbing, gum-snapping, relentlessly upbeat Chad, two dead-on caricatures of middle American feel-good nothingness. The film mocks them for their unabashed greed and silliness, but it reserves its harshest caricature for Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), an uptight, snobbish former CIA man who is ousted from the agency and whose misplaced bank statements trigger the film's plot. Cox is an insufferable prig who says he's spent his entire life fighting against "stupid people," and who takes obvious pleasure in correcting his inferiors for their every tiny mistake, and especially their grammatical foibles. Malkovich turns in a great performance, channeling every ounce of his own innate arrogance and smugness into this character's every phrase; his mannered enunciation of the very word "memoirs" indicates the esteem with which he feels his life story should be greeted.

The plot also pulls in the Treasury Department agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a quirky paranoiac with a voracious sexual appetite. Pfarrer is sleeping with Cox's ice queen wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), but he's also romancing a variety of women who he meets for random encounters through Internet dating services, which is how he also winds up with Linda. The Coens weave the narrative patiently from out of this complicated web of relationships, letting the threads of blackmail, spying, sudden violence, and deceit interact with the parallel narratives involving the characters' various disintegrating marriages, serial unfaithfulness, and bald-faced lies. The personal and the public wind up blending together in interesting ways, reflecting the complete moral confusion of these people who can't seem to figure out what they're doing, what they want, or how to get it.

All of this confusion is, of course, being closely observed by the various intelligence agencies, who are keeping a close eye on everyone involved: they know almost immediately that Cox may have lost some confidential information, they know it may be handed on to the Russians, they know that several federal agents are involved in this mess, that there's rampant infidelity involved ("they all seem to be screwing each other"), and that the body count is slowly rising. But they don't care. J.K. Simmons plays an unnamed senior intelligence officer who receives periodic reports on the progress of this "clusterfuck," while his agents watch closely but never intercede, letting the mess escalate out of control and never getting a real handle on what's going on. "Come back with a report when it, uh... when it makes sense," he tells an underling at one point. Later, he reacts with horror when someone suggests collaborating with the FBI on this case, sputtering, "No, no. God no!" Simmons' deadpan performance delineates a fairly minor character in a film populated by larger-than-life caricatures, but his clueless CIA man nevertheless embodies the film's real satirical point and its primary target.

In this film, the stupidity of individuals — who cheat, steal, manipulate, and even kill to get their own petty desires — is only surpassed by the institutional stupidity of the government, which is near omniscient but so indifferent to life and everything else that it can't be roused to action by even the most horrifying events. The Coens depict the corridors of power from the ground level, opening each scene at the CIA headquarters with a series of quick shots of feet walking through unvarying hallways lined with unmarked doors. This detached perspective emphasizes the anonymity of the walker, who goes to deliver reports that ultimately have no effect — the CIA never steps in until after it's way too late. Simmons' disinterested manner is only penetrated once, late in the film, when he sighs with disappointment after learning that Cox has survived a gunshot wound and merely lapsed into a coma instead of dying; the Agency is peeved only when they're inconvenienced. Otherwise, Simmons seems blithely unconcerned about the whole affair, seemingly dismissing it all when he learns Cox's security level — implying that some supposed "secrets" aren't really worth bothering about, after all. This callous indifference to security and individual lives alike comes together in the pointed satire of the final scene, in which the Coens abruptly cut away from the climax of the mayhem and give the final word to Simmons and his assistant at the CIA. This duo ruminates on what they've learned from this mess, finally deciding that it's close to nothing, and ending with a vain promise to "never do it again" — a schoolboy oath so insincere and perfunctory that the two agents barely even pretend to mean it. It amounts to a disinterested shrug, a disavowal of responsibility and an implicit acknowledgment that the same thing could happen again tomorrow (and probably will) and again nobody would care.


DavidEhrenstein said...

I genuinely loathe the Coens. ALL their films are about stupidity. All of them strive to place the viewer in a position of smug superiority to the characters and incidents unfolding on screen. They have no interest in composition, camera movement or editing outside of getting from one set-up to another as quickly as possible. They are the end of cinema.

Anonymous said...

While watching Burn After Reading, I couldn't shake off the feeling that it reminded me a lot of Fargo. A slightly less darker version of it, of course.

Anonymous said...

Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he's not taking himself too seriously... in any case, it's about time someone made good use of his, habitually spastic arm movements