Buy After Watching – Burn After Reading Review

Burn After Reading – Starring George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Brad Pitt. Directed by The Coen Brothers. Rated MA for infrequent strong violence and coarse language. 96 mins.

“It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning since you’ve been gone”. This lyric from that classic Four Tops song played a prominent role in The Coen Brothers first film Blood Simple. I wonder if they realised just how indicative that line would be of their next 11 movies. Of course, I’m talking about the ‘same old song’ part, not so much the toe-tapping, lustful plea that takes up the rest of the Motown classic.

The plot of Burn After Reading is the same basic outline that we’ve already seen in Coen classics like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men. A seemingly regular joe comes across an opportunity to make some money, and ends up ruining the lives of everyone around them. Of course, if that was all there was to it, it wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers film. The reason this old song never gets tired is thanks to The Coens love of toying with traditional conventions, and their ability to litter the screen with bizarre characters.

John Malkovich plays recently fired CIA agent Oswald Cox, who plots his revenge against his former employers in the form of a scathing memoir. His cold-hearted wife (Swinton) wonders just who would want to read such a thing. A CD containing the memoir falls into the hands of dim-witted gym employees Linda and Chad (McDormand and Pitt) through means I’m not even going to attempt to explain. Chad just wants to give it back to Cox, and hopefully receive a ‘Good Samaritan’ fee. Linda however, sees an opportunity to squeeze some extra money out of him. If he doesn’t comply, they’ll take the CD to the Russians. Apparently she thinks it’s 1962.

Amongst all this mayhem is Government agent Harry Pfarrer (Clooney). How does he fit into all of this? Well, he’s having an affair with Cox’s wife, is dating Linda, and he might have accidentally killed someone innocent. Of course, in Burn After Reading, innocence is relative. A likable character amongst this group is just someone who hasn’t been given the opportunity to do something bad.

The Coens have said Burn After Reading is their attempt at making a spy film. At times, you almost think you are watching a high energy Bourne flick. But that just goes to prove their talent, because underneath the veneer of espionage, exists the kind of kooky characters exclusively seen in Coen Brothers films. Just when you think something funny (or horrible) is about to happen, these characters do the exact opposite of what you expect. Check out the scene where Harry invites Linda to see the ominous machine in his basement. If anyone actually guesses what it is before seeing it, I will eat my shoe. Of course, amongst all the zany idiocy, there are still extremely horrible things happening. This film features two of the most shocking and graphic murders ever committed to film. Of course, being a Coen Brothers flick, you kind of want to laugh when it happens. But that’s mostly because you’ve been holding your breath for so long.

I absolutely loved this movie. I went in expecting a fun-loving crime caper, and left with the same grim hope for humanity I felt after No Country for Old Men (oddly, that’s a compliment). Don’t be fooled by that light-hearted trailer; this is a dark film. That’s not to say it isn’t fun. Pitt and Clooney are seemingly engaged in a battle of wits (or should that be dims) to see who can play the stupidest character. They’ll be glad to know they’re both winners. John Malkovich plays the archetypal-John Malkovich character. But he does it so well! There are also great performances from J.K Simmons and Richard Jenkins, who are both turning into the go-to-guys for quality ensemble films.

There are those who say Burn After Reading is just a Coen Brofters afterthought – not worthy of the analysis reserved for No Country or Barton Fink. Well, maybe it doesn’t need to be analysed within an inch of its life. Maybe these characters can turn up for an hour and a half, have their fun, and disappear. Since when did making a brisk, funny, rivetting movie become a bad thing? Burn After Reading happily sits in the upper echelon of Coen films. It might be the same old song, but I could watch these guys play it over and over again.

4.5 stars.

Check the trailer out here.

2 Responses to “Buy After Watching – Burn After Reading Review”

  1. Hi Simon,A nit pick – where you have “Pitt and Clooney are seemingly engaged in a battle of wills (or should that be dims)..” I think you meant to write a battle of WITS.

  2. hey hey! nice catch.i will fix that straight away. cheers for that.you know when something sounds right in your head, and then you write it down and it is actually embarrasingly incorrect.good thing my job doesn’t require me to write much.oh, wait…

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