In which Hannah watches Burn After Reading

It is time now for Burn After Reading, which, thanks to Mark Kermode of BBC Radio Five Live’s film review, I cannot refer to as Burn After Reading-prounounced-like-the-place (for non-Britishers, that is Redding). I have not seen this the cinemas when I was fairly unimpressed, so I am interested to see how I do with it now.

For a start I’d completely forgotten that John Malkovich was in this, even though his effectively the key character, because it is his character Ozzy inadvertently losing his shit that sends the whole thing into its spiral:

Put up a note? “Highly classified shit found: Signal intelligence shit, CIA shit?” Hello, anybody lose their secret CIA shit? I don’t think so!

This is the Coens make a Washington DC spy film (who is following George Clooney in that black car?) but it’s a brightly coloured black comedy film about sex and money and spies.

The Russians?

Everyone’s surprise at the fact that Linda and Chad dates this movie, because I don’t think that would surprise anyone right now – even this particularly confused set of CIA agents.

Report back to me when it makes sense.

After this second viewing, I’m of the opinion that Burn After Reading is a good film, and a very Coen-y film, but it is not Of My Favourites.

I think my problem with this film is that everyone is horrible, with their only redeeming features being the vanities and failings of confidence that lead them all off down their pathways. And without some measure of affection, black comedy doesn’t quite hurt as good – you just want the characters to get what they deserve and you don’t wince over it. I want to wince over my black comedy as I laugh, as I do with the original Ladykillers.

By far the most decent character is the hapless Chad, who is extremely out of his depth, having started by trying to do the right thing and then gets pulled in over his head by also trying to help out his friend and colleague Linda. Poor soon-to-be-dead Chad. I wince for him if for nothing else.

Coen-isms:

  • Empty Roads? I actually don’t think there are – or at least not that I noticed. There is one moment of empty sea, with a yacht on it, as Ozzy explains to his father what he’s about to do.
  • Terrifyingly bright daylight? It’s very bright outside in this film. I don’t know if the brightness is terrifying, but it adds to the popping colours and weird dissonance of spy plot and bright comedy.
  • Incredible Carter Burwell score? Yes, it’s delightfully sombre and spy movie-ish, which just adds to the dissonance.
  • Very realistic violence? Yes. For all I am not ok with people hiding in other people’s Accidentally shooting people hiding in your wardrobes is why guns should
  • Extremely black lines delivered straight?

 CIA Officer: We’ll… interface with the FBI on this dead body.
CIA Superior: No, no. God no. We don’t need those idiots fucking everything up. Burn the body. Get rid of it.
CIA Officer: OK.

  • An obsession with odd hair? Chad (Brad Pitt)’s hair is tall and special and highlighted, but he’s not obsessed with it. The key obsession here is Linda’s obsession with her cosmetic surgery.

And pretty great female leads? Hello Tilda Swinton and welcome to Coen-land, you are most delightfully welcome. And hello again Frances McDormand. Two female leads is new and exciting, and they both share a level playing field with all the men in this movie – by which I mean they are absolutely as self-involved as them. Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton) is absolutely not lacking in confidence or self consciousness. She is brutally no nonsense and also primarily self-interested. Which is in some ways supremely appealing, until, as Harry finds out, you become the primary person who has to support it.

In contrast, Linda is self-conscious and unconfident, when it comes to finding someone special to share her life with. Really she should just have shared it with Chad (if she won’t share it with Richard Jenkins’ Ted, who adores her):

Chad is the only can do person I know.

But while Swinton’s Cox is one of the characters who joins the dots in this weird shambles of events, McDormand’s Linda is a driver. It is her desperation to reinvent herself that sends Ozzy’s loss of his shit into tailspin. This is better than Intolerable Cruelty and The Man Who Wasn’t There, Coens. Huzzah.

Previously: No Country for Old Men
Up Next: A Serious Man

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