Burn After Reading

  • Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
  • 2008

A Coen brothers movie is always a quirky affair. Their characters are odd, their stories take sudden twists and they tend to end all of a sudden. Burn After Reading sees them all combine as a CD containing information becomes a catalyst for events to go very wrong in a lighter offering than last year’s Oscar winner No Country for Old Men

A comedy of errors and misunderstandings, Burn After Reading sees two ditzy gym instructors, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) find themselves in possession of what they think is highly sensitive government information. It is in actual fact the financial details of former CIA agent Osbourne Cox(John Malkovich) containing no classified details, however he is writing his memoirs of working in the C.I.A. so when airhead Chad attempts to return the disc he manages to antagonise Osbourne into thinking he has his book on the disc so Osbourne immediately assumes it is a blackmail call. Events quickly spiral out of control as Osbourne’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton) who put the files on the disc, and her lover the treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) become involved too, but the Coens’ meticulous set up falls down in the final act.

Pitt almost walks off with the acting plaudits despite being seen the least out of the big names.

Character-wise, Burn After Reading is a typical Coen success. McDormand’s cosmetic-surgery obsessed gym worker is a delightful doofus and her colleague Chad is an dimwit Pitt revels in playing: together they make for a perfect comic double act who eventually realise they could get money out of Osbourne and need to obtain more information than the useless disc by breaking into Osbourne’s house. The calamity which follows, taking in elements of Katie’s affair with Harry as it goes, is a fine example of a carefully built tower of cards collapsing quickly with comi-tragic results. Yet, as much as the Coens enjoy weaving the stories together so that it is not until everything starts unravelling that you fully understand how everyone is connected, just as you start to really enjoy Burn After Reading the Coens burn it themselves.

At a trim 96 minutes, Burn After Reading is almost over before you know it. A slow set up and introduction of the various characters very quickly comes together and escalates to an classically-Coen abrupt finish which here ends with an almost disposable statement. Unlike last year’s Oscar winner No Country for Old Men, there is no analysis of events and nor should there be, but a little more semblence of respect for the audience should be given rather than to simply suggest “that’s it, we’re done here” at the end. Thankfully the performances are spot-on, Pitt almost walks off with the acting plaudits despite being seen the least out of the big names, and the script as tight as ever — just a little too tight though.

Burn After Reading is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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