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An underrated Coen gem more relevant now than ever - 10 years of Burn After Reading


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Whilst a critical success upon its release, Burn After Reading was never warmly received by general audiences and, as such, has slipped through the cracks of the Coen’s vast filmography. Viewing it ten years later though, the film has in fact proven to be more relevant as time has gone on and is arguably one of the renowned directors’ most accomplished pieces.

The film  tells a complicated tale following many characters, all of whom act with selfish motives but have no full understanding of what exactly it is they’re caught up in. The general plot follows Hardbodies Gym employees Lynda Litzke, played here by recent Oscar winner Frances McDormand, and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) as they try to capitalise on finding what they believe to be CIA secrets belonging to former agency analyst, and part-time alcoholic, Osborne Cox.

Whilst this is the through-line of the film, the plot also follows the charming yet needy, sex-addict Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), as he deals with his crumbling marriage; Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), Osbourne’s cold and calculating wife who is sleeping with Harry; and hopeless romantic Ted (Richard Jenkins), who is love-stricken for fellow gym employee Lynda. Though it may seem overwhelming, the way these plot threads all string together is nothing short of genius, leading to a wholly satisfying conclusion that stays consistent with the movies’ themes.

The film had the seemingly impossible task of following up from the Coen’s Oscar-winning masterpiece No Country for Old Men, a dark and gritty film that thrived on violence and tension. Audiences were hence left disappointed when the Coens’ next film took on a completely different tone and had a far less clear-cut message.

Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading (2008)

Burn After Reading however, is in fact more in line with the directors’ previous works, with its quirky characters and dialogue as well as the dark comedic tone making it comparable to the likes of The Big Lebowski and Fargo. In a way, this film is likely the most ‘Coen-esque’. There are memorable and unique characters, all brought together through coincidence and misinformation into extreme circumstances that spiral out of control.

The film is made up of a truly all-star cast, with modern giants such as J.K. Simmons and Frances McDormand being accompanied by the likes of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Richard Jenkins, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton. Malkovich is a scene stealer from the off with his foul-mouthed character, Cox, bringing many of the film’s laughs despite his despicable nature.

He is matched pound for pound by McDormand’s Linda, who is obsessed with having transformative plastic surgery and willing to go to extreme lengths to get it. The entire cast revel in the caricatures they play and each member brings something to their role that helps make their performance memorable. For Brad Pitt, it is a cheerful goofiness that makes Chad a loveable character despite his sheer idiocy, and for George Clooney, it is his frantic motor mouth that perfectly expresses Harry’s insecurity and paranoia. 

Despite all the humour though, Burn After Reading has some clear themes that, some would argue, are more relevant today than they were ten years ago. The film’s entire plot, as well as all of its characters’ motivations, are built upon misinformation and misunderstanding, something that has become prominent in the era of rampant social media and ‘fake news’.

Jeet Heer of The New Republic commented that the film “resembles every day in Trump’s Washington, where the line between blundering idiocy and malevolent conspiracy is increasingly blurred”. This much is shown through the sheer incompetence of the CIA throughout the movie, who, by the end, know even less than the audience in regards to the events that have transpired. As J.K. Simmons’ character, credited as CIA Superior, aptly concludes “so, we don’t really know what anyone is after”.

Credit: PigOut

Burn After Reading of course had a lot to say for its own time as well, being released into a climate of growing fear regarding state security in the U.S. and with invasive public surveillance being at the forefront of many people’s minds; as much is demonstrated by the opening and closing shots from the perspective of a satellite spying on Washington. The film also comments on the transition of politics in Washington, with the decline of Osbourne Cox, a bow-tie-wearing admirer of Cold War diplomat George Kennan, representing the CIA shedding its old ways and transitioning into the 21st century. These messages, like so many others in the Coen Brothers’ films, are subtly placed in amongst the darkest of humour and the occasional flurry of violence.

Burn After Reading remains a wonderfully executed Coen satire in which misinformation is cause for chaos. It’s a sorely underrated member of the Coen’s filmography and, like some of the best films, is only proving to be more relevant with age. Although not a perfect movie, Burn After Reading is certainly one worth re-visiting in 2018.


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