Coens bring another dark caper in Burn After Reading

by Glen Baity

Whether it’s Nic Cage’s hapless baby thief in Raising Arizona or William H. Macy’s desperate car salesman in Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen love two bit schemes and the penny-ante criminals who try — often unsuccessfully — to pull them off. Even last year’s No Country For Old Men, a deserving Oscar winner based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, fit in the Coen mold because it centered on a character too dim to realize the disaster he’s getting himself into. Josh Brolin’s Llewellyn Moss might seem pretty far removed from the Dude of the much revered The Big Lebowski; nevertheless, the two had some things in common, like a knack for landing in a heap of trouble with minimal effort.

The Coens once again explore the world of hastily-planned cons in their latest, a comic caper that, like so many of their films, is agreeably light until events begin to escalate.

Burn After Reading follows a group of oddballs embroiled in a poorly-thought-out blackmail. On the receiving end is Ozzie Cox (played by a scenery-chomping John Malkovich), a CIA operative who’s just been demoted because of his barely concealed alcoholism. He’s unhappily married to Katie (Tilda Swinton), who is having a passionless affair with Ozzie’s arch-enemy, Harry (George Clooney), a commitment phobic ladies’ man with a wife and a few other girls on the side. Tumbling into this dysfunctional social circle are Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt), employees at a chain fitness center who find a mysterious CD with some of Ozzie’s files while cleaning up the ladies’ locker room. The two hatch a scheme to extort money from Ozzie, which goes as well as you might expect. I loved Burn After Reading for the same reason I love most films by this pair: it’s clever, entertaining and darkly comic, the script is funny and the ensemble cast is great. My favorite is the wide-eyed, empty-headed Chad, played by Pitt with palpable enthusiasm, though I was also fond of McDormand as his skittish, image-obsessed co-conspirator. They’re the best of a cast that, on the whole, delights in portraying a group of astounding morons caught in a confusing situation. Indeed, much of the film’s humor comes from the fact that no one has a complete grasp of what’s going on. They bump into each other like blindfolded chimps, and their flailing against the chaos is enough to make this a thoroughly entertaining picture. It’s certainly breezier than No Country, my favorite film of last year and in my mind the Coens’ strongest statement. But that doesn’t mean Burn After Reading is all fun and games — as always, there’s more than a little poison in the recipe, and if you know that going in, you know this film can go pretty much anywhere. True to form, before it’s all over you’ll witness a few gunshot wounds, some high treason, a lot of hurt feelings and a broad-daylight murder by hatchet. Consider yourself warned. Films by the Coens are so engaging because they view like morality plays without morals. Sure, it seems like these characters’ shortcomings, their innate pettiness and their intellectual laziness, should be instructive in some way, but this is not the case. The always-entertaining JK Simmons has a small but great part as a CIA bureaucrat trying to find the “why” in the whole affair. In exasperation, he asks his colleague: “So what have we learned here?” The response, which I won’t spoil, is hilarious because it makes no sense and it means nothing. Because in the Coens’ wonderfully absurd world, there’s no great lesson, and that’s the appeal. The point is to surrender to it, to take a few detours down dark alleyways and to come out with fewer fellow travelers than when you started. In the end, you’ll have learned nothing, and you’ll have had a great time all the way.

To comment on this article, send your e-mail to