The Coen Brothers embark to, and dust off, their old lighthouses with Burn After Reading, and they shine a flickering light flickeringly. By which I mean the film and the characters are flickering lights, prone to momentary inanity and batty flights of self-destroying fancy, and that the film itself is only capable of glimmers of mastery in channeling its own insanity and evoking the modern-day screwball the two-headed director so effortlessly massaged earlier in their career. That, and the film is frankly blinded ever so slightly by the fluorescent rays of No Country For Old Men right in its rear-view mirror, lights which simultaneously shine too brightly and leave such a fractured, gloomy overcast ion storm in their wake for Burn After Reading’s spirited but sort of flaccid light to lead the way through the treacherous waters of expectation. There be monsters here, but they’re barracudas compared to No Country’s shark swimming circles around them.
Unbelievably, perhaps, the stone-cold, arctic No Country is of all things a funnier film than Burn After Reading. Gone from No Country, for instance, is the absurdist death comedy with the gravid visual poetics and crystalline largo rhythms that mutated the foulest of foul comedy into not only an excoriating visual tableaux of America in still-motion but philosophical fodder. Burn After Reading is a somewhat indifferent screwball compared to No Country’s elegy to American know-how undercut by the flutters of blind chance and malevolent predestination that Americans so often elide with the Enlightenment half-truths, or outright lies, that we all assume control over our destinies.
No Country’s action embarked with an act of stumbling (upon a briefcase full of money, and the American Dream) but concludes with a sense of uncertain certainty, events subscribing to laws of happenstance rather than causal logic as the American Dream unfurls into a nightmarish entropy. With visuals that feel both etched in classical, timelessly unmoving hues yet twitchily prone to in-the-moment detours, digressions, and randomness (like the infamous failure to climax the film with the catharsis of the hero’s death at the hands of his pursuer), the film incarnates a stylistic paradox between unerring forward thrust and wild-eyed, willy-nilly tonal spasms. A paradox, incidentally, that evokes the film’s dialectic between wild chance and predestination, with Enlightenment self-determination flailing around in between.
Comparatively, Burn After Reading struggles to swivel from simply arbitrary to an actual study in the arbitrary (the latter being No Country’s dominant mode). But this film has its fair share of paradoxes as well, most notably how it renders constant motion but suggests characters arriving right back where they started, any and all thrust circumscribed into a circular path. Like No Country, Burn is ultimately a study in inertia, although here it’s masked by people oblivious to their own inertia. The film ultimately strives for, and partially achieves, a similar sensibility of a world, and people, moving past itself and arriving nowhere.
If anything, Burn is even more caustic than its predecessor, even though it can never match the tar-like intensity of the amoral No Country. Like that film, the MacGuffin is a similar act of stumbling, in this case two gym employees, Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt), staggering upon the pitiful memories of recently-quit (fired) government middle-body Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). The two nobodies mistake it for high-import information in the process (exactly as Osborne does, believing his life story to be something more than depressingly ordinary), and attempt to blackmail him. Also in the mix are Cox’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton, snowy as ever) and serial adulterer and general egotist Harry (George Clooney), a more suggestive, unpolished government agent, an Oscar to Malkovich’s Felix. All of them predictably come into play in unexpected contortions of clever screwball chaos, but here the characters keep staggering around obliviously in search for something until the very end. Rather than being channeled into the rousting uplift of manic effervescence, they’re hopelessly cast adrift, mangled, in the fatal hideout of modern anonymity and the Coens’ frigid tone. The city of DC, a haven of movers and shakers, warps into a dungeon of tumblers and burnouts who couldn’t move or shake anything if they grabbed the celluloid itself and went to town.
A work of hare-brained harassment, this wry, gloomy film exhibits a crypto-nihilist streak, like the filmmakers’ whole oeuvre, but the aesthetic is almost shockingly unempathetic here. Almost fascistically distant from the characters (but they’re also distant from themselves), Burn might even emit less levity than No Country, where sideline miscommunications and random chance all simmered in an existential gumbo where coal-black, gallows comedy was as much an ingredient as punctuations of malarial violence. There, futility felt surrealistic; here, it’s plain old futility, and a little monotone compared to the variegated tonal eccentricity of that previous film, or Fargo. The Coens’ more violent films mutate lethargy and Old Testament wrath into pizzaz, while Burn After Reading downshifts the fragrance of comedy into pungent misanthropy, enervating itself with the torpid blows afflicted by the Coens’ rampant cynicism.
Which is a style itself, mind you, and not a completely ineffective one. There’s just no poetry to the cynicism here, no choked-air breathing room, no respite that is actually a further curdle, no Tommy Lee Jones as a battered, pitiable Old West sheriff not holding jurisdiction over anything except perhaps his own will to abscond and leave the nightmare of the world to its own devices. In place, though, there are medicinal filigrees. For instance, most of the performances are winners, from Malkovich’s impossibly disenchanted agent who careens into a toxic spillover of rage when he needs to, or Clooney’s act of calcifying his suave good-cheer smile into a portrait of a lone-wolf braggart. Or, especially, McDormand’s desperate term as an aging woman shoe-horned into a world where the loss of beauty is an existential crisis for women demanded to fill-out (literally) society’s expectations of physical glamour. Some of the lingering loneliness doesn’t survive the thresher of the Coens’ downbeat cynicism (even by their standards, Burn is a smug film), but the glimmers of petrified humanity weaving around (and stepping all over) the shattered glass of the world shine anyway.
Less glimmering are the technical credits, especially Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography which vacantly neglects to imbue the film with any of his trademark shark-tail camera weaves. Perhaps the dormant visual style is the point, with so many futile, repressed people staggering around in the frame, but the film also feints toward a satire of corporate espionage thrillers (here, the riff is that the espionage is empty, and the MacGuffin is even emptier). An argument could be fashioned that the wallflower visual anonymity is purposeful; after all, in so many thrillers, neutral and passive tones camouflage dungeons of malcontent to suggest a world of lurking, malignant terror in seemingly benign geometry. The failure of the film to even suggest this malignancy might be a statement to how inept and pitiful these characters are, how vapid their various espionage kerfuffles are underneath the static contours of the world.
So the idea isn’t unlike Dr. Strangelove, an absurdist screed of somewhat equally misanthropic proportions camouflaged in a style that channels classical drama and registers initially as a thriller. But that film thrived on the friction between actually evoking the visual décor of the noir for characters woefully unequipped to complement such visual hues. In doing so, it asked us to confront visual expectations for a film by sabotaging them, ruffling the story away from the aesthetic and subverting the implicit form-content agreement assumed as de rigueur in cinema, essentially asking us how to react to cinema when our eyes, the very channel for intaking cinema, deceive us by suggesting one genre and gifting us another.
Comparatively, Burn still relies on a form-content harmony (neutral people, neutral style), but merely a different harmony than we expect. Which is … let’s call it merely “neat” in the way of a private head experiment rather than actively animated with kindling disruption of the cinematic status quo (the contrast in Strangelove actively asserts itself on us bodily, while Burn is more like an argument you have to decide to make for the film if you’re inclined to). Burn is certainly a style, but never does it actively question itself and strive for in-the-moment cognitive dissonance and cinematic heresy like Dr. Strangelove; amusing though it may be, it is too timid to test the limits of cinema as a formal medium. In fact, scratch “private head experiment” and replace with “private joke”, one the film’s woefully inadequate, incompetent characters desperately aren’t in on, and perhaps the audience isn’t either. The overall experience of Burn After Reading is like watching the two directors heckle their cast of misfits, but they never throw themselves all the way in. There’s a distance, a sense of watching from afar, that vaguely threatens the film with an aura of timidity, like the Coens know they are superior to their characters and remain content to acknowledge it, without ever actually stimulating this discontent into anything more purposeful.
The comparisons perhaps unnecessarily cast the film in an unfavorable light, but Burn After Reading also doesn’t assert itself enough to avoid the comparisons. The Coen machine is a warped perch between sweet and sour, and this particular film blows past their supercilious demeanors and into full-blown smug overcast. I’m not one to overdose on claims that the Coens are misanthropes (they may be, but that doesn’t torpedo their value as artists), but something about Burn feels particularly distasteful, perhaps simply that the film really isn’t good enough to kindle the contempt into anything beyond itself. The clouds of No Country might materialize contempt, but only as a counterpoint within a brew of other moods and attitudes, in addition to the not insignificant point about the film being a blistering melding of neo-classicist perfectionism and scorching visual heroics from Roger Deakins; Burn After Reading is nice and slinky, sure, but somewhat nondescript, which only makes the contempt all the sourer.
Here, the nihilism is unwired to any sense of pitiless pastoral myth-making or a near-Biblical land of perdition of people trying to “mean” only to run into a brick-wall world devoid of meaning. While the characters’ desires often scuppered their lives in No Country, the Coens’ never looked down on the characters; their nihilism was not only remorseless but deeply empathetic. In Burn After Reading, it wilts into, well, just plain one-note hostility (rather than the more fluxional tone of stylistic agitation, the brothers’ normal milieu). Not batty enough, the film feels too constipated, too rehearsed in its rhythms, but also not the sort of rehearsal that animates itself into a perfectly planned aria of death poetry (again, see No Country). Rather than aiming for screwball and arriving at the conclusion that screw-loose people are disaffected malcontents, the film adopts distaste as the animating principle, the initial assumption. Chad (amiably played by a fired-up Pitt) is a particular punching bag for the film, the only spark of life in the whole affair whose genuine mirth is crystallized only because he’s too unthinking to consider anger. His happiness is rewarded with the cruelest twist of the knot. The Coens’ distaste for the other characters would be afraid of their wrathful scorn for his good cheer. Even their feints toward human ennui sometimes only intervene, tangling the film’s superiority to its characters up in a possibly false sense of empathy the film attends to indifferently and inconstantly, as if they’re simply pretending to like the characters.
A fascinating convergence of awry, antic mania and fragile discontent is the ideal, but this film mostly treats the middle ground like a dead zone rather than a battle ground. There’s nothing gained, nothing learned, and in the Coens’ often disaffected worldview, nothing really lost either, just a flotilla of people running around over nothing they interpret as everything but turns out to be nothing. And everything. Running in circles is fine enough ground for a film, but this comedy isn’t acrobatic enough as a dizzying screwball or terrifyingly empty enough to achieve the glacial poetics of momentous inertia so epochal in No Country. Mostly, it wallows in a mirthless middle. No Country managed new territory for the writer-directors that still somehow folded and perverted their old comic territory, which makes Burn After Reading feel more like a regression than a refreshing paean to old glories. Trivium has its pleasures, for sure, but Burn After Reading is too cold to burn, and not looney enough in its trivium to do the term proud.