A new film from the Coen brothers is always greeted with deserved anticipation, and their latest, Burn After Reading is no exception, as evidenced by a packed cinema last Friday.
Writing, directing, and producing their films in tandem, Joel and Ethan Coen have generated acclaim for their darkly funny, irreverent, films since their first, Blood Simple, in 1984. While recent movies such as Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers may have lacked the sharpness of their earlier films, last year’s No Country for Old Men was widely perceived (not least at the Academy Awards ) as a return to form.
Essentially a shaggy dog story satirising the machinations of Washington DC’s corridors of power, Burn After Reading is best described as a spoof spy thriller. An ensemble of characters in Washington find their lives intersecting in strange, possibly dangerous, possibly profitable ways.
CIA field agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich ) is abruptly fired and goes home to drink, rail at an unjust world, and start writing his memoirs. His unimpressed doctor wife Katie (Tilda Swinton ) plans to leave him for Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney ), a cheery but neurotic US marshal with whom she’s been having an affair.
Across town, two employees at the Hardbodies gym discover a CD in the women’s locker room containing Cox’s draft memoir. Linda (Frances McDormand ) and Chad (Brad Pitt ) quickly perceive the information on the disc may be valuable, and try to extract money from Cox for its return. Meanwhile Chad and Linda are being tracked by CIA agents alarmed at their increasingly suspicious activities.
As always in a Coen brothers film, the carefully chosen cast deliver exceptional performances. Clooney once again demonstrates he is at his comic best in a character role. His portrayal of nervy Harry is perfectly timed, escalating in twitchiness until he disappears into a cloud of his own paranoia. Playing a dim gym bunny, Pitt is on fine himbo form here, delivering his lines in perfect surfer dude patois.
The marvellous Tilda Swinton plays the icy hyper-rational Katie to perfection, approaching a pastiche performance of the ultimate control freak without ever quite succumbing to parody. Coen stalwart Frances McDormand plays somewhat against recent type as excitable opportunist Linda, who blunders into the blackmailing business with aplomb.
Malkovich delivers a well pitched blend of actual menace and furious frustration as the pretentious Osbourne. JK Simmons (the mellow dad in Juno ), is on laconic form as a CIA head with an instinct for damage control.
At their best, the Coen brothers immerse audiences in a completely integral setting, characterised by a cohesive aesthetic of the region in which the story is set combined with equally localised vernacular uttered by its inhabitants.
Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou? and of course No Country for Old Men all conveyed tangible alternate worlds peopled by odd but often complex characters whose bizarre motivations drove the story.
Unfortunately, Burn After Reading lacks this overarching sense of being transported to another, wackier, place. Its attempt to satirise political corruption in Washington doesn’t quite hang together. While Washington DC is an odd city in itself, characterised by a felt lack of industry - its industry being government - the Coens fail to adequately capture the resultant weirdness of a city without visible means of production.
There are some great lines and visual details however, such as the recurring shots men’s of shiny black shoes clicking endlessly up and down the corridors of power at CIA HQ; Linda’s obsession with plastic surgery, and the nuanced, careerist, conversation at elite DC dinner parties.
Ultimately Burn After Reading isn’t the Coens at their finest by some distance, with the spoof aspect feeling strangely uneven. It is however an enjoyable, frequently funny, film with some nice potshots fired at US governmental incompetence.