No Country For Old Men made people think that the Coen brothers, though back in form, are reluctant to tread their snarky irreverent and funny ground, instead choosing the bleakness of Anton Chigurh's mind. They have always reveled in the misery and darkness of human character, but No Country... was a bleak appraisal of the human condition, and while in the same place with their violent curios, it still had a pervasive gloom.
That sense of the macabre continues its presence in their cinema with Burn After Reading. In many ways this is the culmination of the damning assessment of the ugliness of human nature from No Country and the overt comedy of the rest of their oeuvre. Whether this is a return to roots or new beginnings will get clearer over the next few films, but for now they have delivered a hilarious indictment of our selfishness and stupidity and all the misery it molds.
The tale unspools itself in the suburbs of Washington DC, where mundane elitist CIA desk man Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, easily bringing in his emotive face to the most farcical character he has played yet) quits his job when faced with demotion. Getting bored at home, he decides to write his memoirs, the most boring piece of text ever committed to paper, while his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton, all ice-cold perfection) is contemplating divorce.
Katie is also having a torrid affair with Treasury guy Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney, proving once again that he'd do anything for a role that lets him sink his teeth into it), a ladies man, cheap, and a fitness freak. As part of getting evidence for divorce, Katie grabs a bunch of random files from her husband's computer, that somehow end up in the hands of a couple of fitness instructors - Linda (Frances McDormand: easily the star of the show) and Chad (Brad Pitt: if not for this guy).
The duo decides to blackmail Osborne, who genuinely believes he is being taken for a ride. When Harry also starts having an affair with Linda, and believing that Osborne is having him followed, things get confusing fast. The plot is as heavy and unwieldy as it sounds on paper. The characters and their motivations are introduced slowly with no sense of urgency. When all the players start getting connected to each other in the tangled mess, the Coens still do not seem to be in a hurry to finally tighten things up.
The seemingly luxurious staging and pacing is a red herring, though. When things start to get tighter, the film just ups and runs like an Olympic sprinter, and the breathtaking climax will have you laughing your butt off as well as cringing at the brutality at the same time. The movie is every bit as cruel as anything they have done, only it is as funny as anything they have done as well.
While this is not the masterpiece I expected, being a little rough around the edges, this is still cinema masterclass - watching the Coens slowly hovering like hawks before swooping in for the kill is as fascinating and engrossing as it comes. Never has this hard a misanthropic line been so thoroughly engrossing. As comedies go, this may be their most black and acidic work, and yet you can see the brilliance in making you care for characters and then unleashing brutal violence upon them.
As vengeful shepherds and cynical and condescending priests of the human tapestry, the Coens are not surpassed - even though the brilliance of the film is dulled in moments where the clinical staging sometimes outstrips the delightful sense of humor. There is nothing here, however, that does not smack of the audacious talent the brothers seem to possess in their craft.
I could go on, telling you about the terrific acting jobs - this may be Brad Pitt's best job ever, and Frances McDormand brings the house down every time she sticks her mug in front of a mirror, and Clooney actually becomes the film, becoming a personalization of the commentary on security and surveillance that the film is - but I don't want to give anything away.
Burn After Reading is one of the most rewarding films I have seen this year, flawed or not, and I would urge you to give this a go as soon as you can. If you happen to be the kind of person who still believes in the cheery disposition towards life as a true way to be, you should especially watch this one. Let the masters bludgeon you into misanthropy.