Great Flames From Little Sparks

The Coen Brothers were always going to struggle to match the Oscar-winning glories of No Country For Old Men, but taken for what it is, a pitch black political comedy, Burn After Reading is a fine achievement, made all the more engaging by a series of clipped, breakneck performances from their ensemble cast of familiar faces. It’s not an essential film, but it is far superior to their other recent quick fire comedies, the lacklustre Ladykillers remake and the terminally dim Intolerable Cruelty.

Set in a bleached-out, industrially austere Washington DC, Burn After Reading (the title comes from a command stamped on a CIA folder), opens with short, tight-knit scenes that establish the main players. At CIA headquarters in Langley, obnoxious and perpetually disgruntled middle-manager Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, forever pursed), quits his job before he can be demoted for his secret drinking. He arrives home to tell his doctor wife Katie (an icy Tilda Swinton), that he plans to retire and write his memoirs.

Katie has a secret of her own; she’s been having an affair with the smirking lothario Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married cop with an inability to remain silent for two minutes. Meanwhile, Osbourne has mislaid the computer disc containing the first draft of his not-so-sensational book and, more pressingly for Katie and her divorce lawyer, the details of their financial affairs. It turns up in the locker room of Hardbodies Gym and, through various machinations, into the hands of personal trainers Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt). Linda is lonely, forever searching dating websites for Mr Right Now and dreaming of expensive cosmetic surgery, which she thinks can save her from eternal spinsterhood. But a body overhaul doesn’t come cheap, so she and man-child Chad hatch a plan to blackmail Osbourne for $50,000, threatening to go to the Russians if he doesn’t comply.

From that point on, everyone is fair game, and the Coens take some considerable relish in making them squirm before dropping the axe. As we have come to expect from these most technically exacting filmmakers, Burn After Reading is set to a dizzying blueprint of character intersection, story revelations and surprises. The trademark rapid-fire Coen dialogue zips from the screen, to an accompanying progression of o-faced reaction shots, slapstick tumbles, winks and widened eyes.

This is a bureaucratic, uncomfortable place where nobody listens to a word anyone is saying, everyone betrays everyone else and interpersonal relationships are difficult to form and impossible to maintain. These people are enthusiastic adulterers and fast-learning blackmailers but don’t appear to find any pleasure in their transgressions beyond a perfunctory ego-massage or a quick-fix moment of criminal thrill. They aren't nice people, but that hasn't stopped the Coens before. They aren't as smart as they think they are, but the Coens are smarter than all of them put together. The problem is that they can't combine smart, dumb, crafty and naive to become wholly interesting characters.

The sustained theme is that things are never what they seem to be on the surface. Nothing, not a marriage, a memoir, a classified secret or an internet dating site, is what it really is, and none of it is worth the effort the protagonists put into maintaining the façade. The Coens maintain a distance by opening the story with a Gods-eye view of the American continent before zooming in on Washington, where these little people scrabble around in a mess of their own creation. The ending is the same shot, reversed.

If that sounds cold, it is supposed to be; Burn After Reading drips with misanthropy and cynicism. It is an American film of its time. As each of the various strands bundle together, the directors drop in a running commentary from a pair of pernickety CIA spooks (David Raschke and J.K. Simmons), who have all the information they need on the major players but are waiting “for it all to make sense”. The fact that it never does is the sourest joke of all.

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