Appearances Can Be Deceptive: The Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading
For my money, Burn After Reading has the best cast of any Coen brothers movie. It has a few classic Coen cast members — George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins — and the rest of the cast is rounded off by equally great actors — Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton. Combined with the rich characters that the Coens are known for writing, the actors bring life to the screen from the very first scene, in which Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) is removed from his CIA job for his anger issues and drinking problems. Well, his boss only mentions the drinking problem, but Osbourne’s clearly living on the edge of violent rage. It doesn’t help that his wife, Katie (Swinton), is cheating on him with Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a man Cox can’t stand. Each of these characters’ first scenes are a great encapsulation of their characters: Katie ignores Osbourne as he tries to tell her about his horrible day, Harry talks over his wife and brags about his gun at a party. There’s no doubt about who these people are and how they view the world.
The same can be said about Linda Litzke (McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Pitt), two trainers at Hardbodies, a local gym. Linda is trying to convince her insurance to cover her cosmetic surgeries and Chad, well Chad is just enjoying life as a gym trainer. He isn’t too concerned about anything. But when a mysterious CD is found in the locker room, he’s intrigued. It’s filled with confidential-seeming information and mysterious numbers, so he assumes it’s “intelligence shit”. From there, the film follows the two bumbling gym employees as they try to monetize this information.
The Coen’s script is tightly packed with twists and turns that carry the characters to fun new places. It’s one of their lighter films, a farcical romp with two dumb idiots trying to be run a complicated con with crazy high stakes. On the other side are highly educated government agents who are completely unaware of what’s going on. It’s a spy film but, because of the ineptitude of the two actually trying to sell the information, the treasonous stakes are only rarely conveyed to the audience. Despite the pleadings of their manager (Jenkins), Linda and Chad carry on with their pursuit until Chad gets killed while trying to obtain more intelligence.
At that point, it all comes tumbling down. Linda is distraught, she’s sad about her friend dying, but she still REALLY wants that extra intelligence, so she can make the money for her surgeries. Her selfishness really shines through here. And so does Harry’s paranoia. He’s the one that shot Chad and that leads him to believe that he’s being hunted by some mysterious agency. Until this point, Harry hadn’t been involved in the stolen-drive plot, just interacting (and having affairs) with various characters. But after he shoots Chad, the plot threads begin to tie together while they simultaneously begin to unravel. Two new characters, CIA higher-ups played by David Rasche and JK Simmons, are introduced to help us understand the big picture of what’s happening, but even they are confused. How is Harry involved with the information stolen from Osbourne? Why are they trying to sell this information to the Russian? What is there to learn from this whole ordeal? They end up answering each of these questions with a shrug, and it feels like the audience is supposed to do the same.
Not all stories need morals, the Coens seem to be telling the audience. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to just sit and enjoy the ride. With these characters, it’s a pretty nice ride. Brad Pitt playing a complete idiot is worth the price of admission alone, and Frances McDormand is great as always. Throw in Clooney and you have three actors at the top of their game in a film by a directing pair fresh off their first Best Director Oscar for No Country for Old Men. It’s clear that everyone involved is having a good time, playing characters written specifically for them. It’s truly a breath of fresh air after plumbing the depths of human evil in the Coens’ previous film.