Paranoid Farce Burn After Reading Saw Straight Through Idiotic Americans

Movies Features Coen Brothers
Paranoid Farce Burn After Reading Saw Straight Through Idiotic Americans

Before he shoots a guy and literally splits said guy’s head open with a small axe, ex-CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) lets the guy know exactly how he feels about him and society in general: “You represent the idiocy of today… You’re one of the morons I’ve been fighting my whole life—my whole fucking life!” This figurative and literal bit of blunt brutality happens at the end of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, which came out 15 years ago this month. Fresh from winning multiple Oscars (including Best Picture) for their nail-biting 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s neo-noir novel No Country for Old Men, the Coens followed up with a jet-black comedy—a paranoid farce filled with, you know, morons. 

After losing a promotion for having “a drinking problem,” the fed-up, foul-mouthed Cox quits his job so he can stay home and write a memoir (he pronounces it “mem-moi”). This infuriates his wife (Tilda Swinton), who is not only cheating on him with a married ex-treasury agent (George Clooney), but is preparing to divorce him by going through his financial records and other personal files (including his memoir passages) and copying it onto a CD-R. (Sidebar: Before the movie came out, press reps cheekily sent me the trailer on an unmarked CD-R, similar to the one in the movie.) 

When the disk ends up on the floor of a gym locker room, gym employees Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand) open it up and assume there is a lot of classified info (“secret CIA shit,” as Chad calls it) that someone would want to keep secret. With Linda looking to get a series of expensive plastic surgeries, she and Chad hatch a plan to contact Cox and inform him they’ll hand over the disk for a hefty “reward.”

When I first saw Burn After Reading, I was amused but also a bit perplexed at how the Coens took what is essentially a go-for-broke, screwball comedy populated by self-centered, self-destructive buffoons and crafted it like a straight-faced, political thriller. I mean, Clooney’s character alone—an always-armed serial philanderer/obsessive jogger who schleps around a sex wedge pillow and builds a very penetrating contraption in his basement—should immediately hip you to how ridiculous all this is. Instead of working with longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins (he was working on Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road at the time), they got together with Emmanuel Lubezki, who had already brought out the immaculate intensity in films by Michael Mann, Terrence Malick and frequent collaborator Alfonso Cuarón. Carter Burwell’s brooding, bombastic score, inspired by John Frankenheimer’s iconic 1964 thriller Seven Days in May, also made some scenes seem more suspenseful than they actually are. 

Then again, Burn After Reading is filled with people who think they’re indulging in some deep, treasonous intrigue, always looking over their shoulder to see if any G-men are tailing them. But, really, by the time the actual U.S. government gets involved (they’re represented by CIA higher-ups played brilliantly by character-actor vets J.K. Simmons and David Rasche), they’re just as confused and dumbfounded as we are. And they’re not the only ones; when Chad and Linda roll up to the Russian embassy looking to strike up a deal, even the Russkies look at them like they’ve lost their damn minds.

Even though Ethan Coen once said it’s “our version of a Tony Scott/Jason Bourne kind of movie, without the explosions,” Burn After Reading is really about how, sometimes, the biggest threat to America is, well, Americans. Released a few months before Barack Obama took the presidential reins, after eight years of George W. Bush and his band of happy warmongers making a lot of us think that there would be a sequel to 9/11, Burn After Reading is basically a madcap, misanthropic meditation on 21st-century American fear and panic. 

Anyone who remembers the aughts knows how divided we became once the Bush II crew went to war, with the country split into red-state neocons and blue-state snowflakes. While they claim the movie is not a comment or satire on Washington, it certainly feels like the Coens crafted a yarn about Beltway-based people who are already so on-edge, they end up doing a lot of dangerous (and dangerously stupid) things to each other when they think they’re lives are in peril. The A-list cast go all in on the buffoonery, especially Pitt, who looks like he’s having too much fun playing a bike-riding, Jamba Juice-slurping doofus who thinks he’s getting his secret-agent man on.

While the reviews were mostly positive, there were critics who were just as baffled as I was. Time’s Richard Corliss said, “The movie’s glacial affectlessness, its remove from all these subpar schemers, left me cold and perplexed.” The New Yorker’s David Denby chided the Coens for creating “a farce plot so bleak and unfunny that it freezes your responses after about forty-five minutes.” My favorite rave came from Mike D’Angelo who briefly commented on it when it played the Toronto Film Festival that year. “Basically it’s Blood Simple played for laughs, but with a nasty post-9/11 sting,” he wrote, also adding that “it’s far more probing and trenchant, in its defiantly goofy way, than No Country for Old Men.” 

Of course, as the years have gone on, people have commended Burn After Reading for calling out Trump-era America before it actually happened. In 2019, New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat said that Burn After Reading is “a vision of amoral political buffoonery that’s arguably the most realistic depiction of Trumpiness to date.” Two years before, The New Republic’s Jeet Heer was also unnerved by how much “it resembles every day in Trump’s Washington, where the line between blundering idiocy and malevolent conspiracy is increasingly blurred.”

Just like these scribes, I’ve come around to recognize Burn After Reading as a scathing, uproarious critique on how our country has become a land where vulgar, gun-toting idiots run wild, causing way more harm and havoc within our borders than any foreign threat could. It might’ve looked cold and bleak when it came out 15 years ago, but, after all the shit we’ve been through these past few years, this dumbass comedy is amazingly, depressingly on-the-nose.

Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.

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