The Coen brothers know how to do so many things. They know how to tell a steady and suspenseful story like Fargo and they know exactly how to poetically linger on loneliness and whimsy, demonstrated in Inside Llewyn Davis. Perhaps what they do best of all is chaos; the madness and genius we find in Burn After Reading would certainly suggest as much. Many of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films deal with senseless violence and crime but there is something entirely illogical about everything that happens in Burn After Reading. This hilarious and vigorous crime-thriller followed No Country For Old Men – one of the brothers’ most influential, unique and serious pieces of work. As admirable and exceptional as it is, the depth and darkness of it made Burn After Reading all that more refreshing and exciting. Both films begin with the discovery of an object, with which comes an opportunity. Like so many of the brothers’ films, Burn After Reading centres on the selfish and greedy individuals of the world. What makes Burn After Reading different from all the rest is just how silly and mad it all is. You get a real sense that on this project the siblings and directors just wanted to have a lot of fun.
When Chad and Linda, two gym employees, stumble on what they believe to be highly private and valuable government files they seize the opportunity to exploit their unique situation. They attempt to blackmail a recently fired, and often intoxicated, CIA agent. Linda hopes to finance her plastic surgery ventures and Chad, well Chad just seems to enjoy the excitement of the whole situation. Meanwhile, the CIA agent’s wife is having an affair with a U.S. Marshal whom Linda also becomes romantically involved with. Several crazy story lines weave together to form the plot of Burn After Reading in which the greedy are sometimes punished but also occasionally rewarded. The wrongdoers eventually suffer but so do the innocent, the unfortunate and the stupid. There is no clear divide between right and wrong here and every character, however corrupt, is simply a flawed human being. The intelligent script is nurtured by some of Hollywood’s most talented and high-profile actors. Everyone is superb. Tilda Swinton successfully captures a nastiness and a selfishness and George Clooney is perfectly creepy and cringe worthy. John Malkovich is as fiery and aggressive as always and is the polar opposite of Brad Pitt’s character who is a vain, over-excited moron.
As is the case with Fargo, Frances McDormand is the best thing about this film. She is effortlessly hilarious and sarcastic. It seems that the less she does the more amazing she is. She captures Linda’s naivety as well as her loneliness and superficiality. Burn After Reading opens and closes with images of the earth viewed from space, possibly addressing how much senseless behaviour and harm occurs all over the planet, every day. The ending of Burn After Reading will either amuse of infuriate you, depending on how much you buy in to the chaos of what I believe to be one of the Coen brothers’ most exciting and endearing films.
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