Burn After Reading
written and directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen
starring Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, John Malkovich, David Rasche, J. K. Simmons
This lunatic film is as queer as anything that has been released into theaters in a very long time. Mostly all the humor is incidental and if you blink you will miss it and feel awfully sorry for yourself. It’s brash, perverse, and entirely without a moral sense of right and wrong. It’s a portrait of perhaps the world as it is and not how certain interest groups pretend it to be. It’s the kind of film that truly defies description so it’s pointless to waste time trying to explain the plot. Still, it’s probably necessary to give a brief outline.
The entire film is built around a misconception. All the characters get involved in a conspiracy that isn’t a conspiracy at all. Many of these characters slip in and out of each other’s bed so nobody really knows which way is up. Some undergo vast changes in their personality or their personal lives and another is driven by selfish reasons that she imagines will greatly improve her life forever. There is also a dolt who just wants to ride in the car with his head out the window although he never actually does that in this film.
All the relationships in this film are heading south very fast. There is rampant infidelity and none of the characters appear to be particularly torn about the correctness of their behavior. There is a tremendous unease about each character and none of them can find any semblance of a balance in their lives although much of this is because of their own doing. These are the kind of people who deserve everything that happens to them in this film. There is no cheering for these characters because they are all rotten to the core. Well, there is one man who seems a bit dazed but that’s only because he has the hots for his co-worker and all she can do is blather on and on about how hard it is to find a proper man. Imagine his torment; all he seems to do is stare at her blindly with that pathetic look on his face like he’s waiting for her to turn the other way so he can take a tasty dump in the yard.
The story simply gets more bizarre and darker as it goes along. The humor is in the facial gestures, asides and reaction shots. This is most definitely a film that needs to be seen many times because there is just so much subtlety involved that you miss much of it after a single viewing. The interactions between characters are laden with subtext as there is always something entirely different going on beneath the surface. Several of these people are deceitful, vile people who care nothing for the feelings of those to whom they are supposed to show the most loyalty. There are also innocents who get trapped in the quagmire and some fare worse than others. Mostly, everyone come together circumstantially and their relationship to the core event is direct for some and tangential for others.
The characters in this film are basically all idiots who have no idea what is happening to them. None of them have a firm grasp on the situation at hand and each of them stumbles blindly through a maze of their own devising. Even the CIA doesn’t have a clue what they’ve gotten hold of and they are relieved when the terrible saga finally comes to an end. Each character in this film imagines themselves in full control of their situation and reality never kicks in so they stay that way for the duration of the film. There are no lessons here, no moral other than that very ill equipped people can cause a whole lot of damage just be leaving the house.
It’s a terribly simple and clearly defined story. There is no ambiguity or confusion and the result is a straightforward narrative that tells the story in a decisive manner. The characters are all clearly written and their personality quirks are instantly recognizable. There is one character who holds on to a singular dream throughout the film; her sole motivation for getting involved is to secure enough funds to realize this dream for herself. She strives only for this one hope and her innocence is a nice counter to the hideous people that make up much of the film. The others seem to possess neither motive or imagination; they are merely cogs in a terrible wheel that turns and turns devoid entirely of their input. They are successful people who know how to live a productive life filled with work, parties, and social significance yet they are essentially stupid when it comes to their personal lives. All of these characters are supremely flawed in how they approach the world in which they live and part of the joy from the film is taken from the many wrong steps that are taken throughout the film.
The film seems realistic in terms of how it treats all its characters. This is how real life is and how horrors can be bestowed upon a person merely by happenstance. None of the characters seem to suffer unless you consider acute paranoia as creating a type of suffering. There is no guilt, no capitulation, no self-abnegation. In fact there is no self examination whatsoever. These are not characters who think a whole lot about anything beyond what is immediately in front of them or some scheme that they imagine can benefit them. Two of these schemers are punished in the worst way and their crimes are laid bare for everyone to see. They are innocents who get caught up in the adventure of the thing and cannot help themselves but to take massive risks to discover more about the mystery they are gladly engaging in. Still, they are guilty of a crime and they suffer immensely for their behavior. Another character suffers a fate worse than death after he loses control in broad daylight and is immediately brought low because of it.
Sexual mores are exploded in this film as they are treated loosely and with no guiding principle. Nearly half the characters seem to be playing musical beds and enjoying themselves immensely. Marriage is treated as a vulgar institution that deserves no allegiance and all of those involve hold it in disdain. They have no love for those they swore to honor and obey and behave clearly as if they no longer believe in the efficacy of their vows. Again, this is precisely how the world is for many people who can never be satisfied with what is presented to them and must always go looking further afield for their satisfactions. It isn’t that these particular characters are necessarily bad people but they certainly have committed a definable sin no matter how much a person would like to explain it away.
Innocence and Guilt can be placed on a scale to determine the moral outlook of the film. We find that innocence is ambiguous at best. Of the seven main characters three commit moral offenses, three of them commits a criminal offense, and one commits no offense. Of the six who have erred in some way or another, four are punished. There is one innocent who is rewarded and two guilty who escape punishment. Essentially, it leans toward punishing the guilty which would make it a film that is interested in promoting the concept of just desserts. Most of the guilty are punished and the only truly innocent person gets a prize.
The performances in this film are all realistic and their characters are all fundamentally unsound. The acting is hyper kinetic and profoundly focused on being as silly and ludicrous as possible. Frances McDormand conveys her character’s perpetually lost state as well as her desperation to find a man of merit who is good looking and can make her laugh. Brad Pitt’s character is an airheaded dynamo who is nevertheless pivotal to the plot. He possesses the most energy in the film and takes initiative to try and solve the puzzle ahead of everyone else. George Clooney plays a character who seems to always be in on the joke. He laughs routinely, smiles incessantly and always seems to be having a really good time. Then circumstances intervene and everything suddenly goes haywire and there is one moment at the end of the film which is as funny as anything in theaters this year. Again, it’s so quick that you’ll probably miss it but it’s worth it if you get it. John Malkovich plays the most ill-strung character in the film. He’s the one who undergoes the most painful realizations that naturally he does not learn from. Malkovich’s body language says all that needs to be said about the character’s inability to get on the right track and stay there. Malkovich doing pseudo-slapstick is certainly something to see. Richard Jenkins as mentions plays the sad, lonely droopy eyed fool in this film who seems utterly miserable in every way possible. Tilda Swinton is deliciously cold and off putting and it’s difficult to imagine her character in a warm embrace with anyone. Her character is forceful, aggressive, a real A-Type who cannot bear even the hint of failure.
Overall, this film cracks a whip against the flesh of anyone who dares to approach it in a sprightly manner. It’s a black comedy meaning the subject matter is dark and it’s terribly funny all the way through. The actors all convey their character’s flaws, insecurities and penchant for self-deception without turning them into ciphers. There are many moments in this film that will be easily missed if the viewer fails to pay close attention. It’s not a film for lazy film goers because the jokes are mostly in between the lines and not necessarily in the broad context of the film. There is joy here in watching superb actors tear into a script that gives them room to move about and expand themselves. This is a very open film that is nevertheless well contained within a specific universe where slight gestures cause riotous laughter and there are really no heroes and no villains. It’s just all a bunch of petty schitt that afflicts these people. They don’t know what they are doing and they are forced to make it up as they go along. It’s very much like real life in that way.