Being burnt feels great

Burn After Reading
United States, 2008

Directed By: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Written By: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins
Running Time: 96 minutes
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, and violence
4 out of 5 stars

“Coen Brothers” is a certifiable genre, even if there are only 2 people who can make films in it. Whether screwball comedy or neo-noir or gangster or stoner or western, each of their genre-bending films have retained the unique Coen hallmarks: quirky characters, idiosyncratic dialogue, vivid regionalism, and a hyper-sensitive balance between comedy and tragedy.
Their consistency of vision, beginning in 1984 with the low-budget Blood Simple, is astounding; how many other directors can claim a distinct style that has been preserved over the course of 12 (now 13) films and 24 years?

In Burn After Reading, the Coens may be ostentatiously toying with the espionage thriller (the kind of dogeared paperback novel you might wile away a day at the beach with), but the film is unmistakably genre ala Coen. They have, yet again, crafted a film that no one else could have made.

Many of the Coen regulars are back in an ensemble that rivals the one they put together for The Big Lebowski: Francis McDormand (5 Coen roles), George Clooney (2 roles), Richard Jenkins (2), and JK Simmons (1) are joined by Coen virgins Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, and Tilda Swinton. Set amidst the imposing backdrop of Washington D.C., with monuments and embassies conspicuously hovering over the characters like darkly disapproving intelligence gods, Burn After Reading involves the tell-all memoirs of an ex-CIA spook (Malkovich) falling into the hands of a can-do fitness instructor (McDormand) who desperately needs $40,000 worth of plastic surgery. When she goes fishing for a “reward,” things spiral out of control as desperate people make increasingly desperate decisions, ultimately destroying their lives in the process.

But the memoirs are just the MacGuffin. They propel the story along but are superfluous to the Coens’ major obsession: breathing life into characters that, like Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, they must have sold their soul to the devil to be able to create. The moment one of their creations steps on screen it is fully realized, unique, unmistakable: Malkovich’s jilted, booze swilling spook; Clooney’s sex-addled federal marshal with a Home Depot card and a will (which results in one of the film’s funniest – and most startling – moments); McDormand’s uber-optimist who equates plastic surgery with redemption; Jenkins’ sad-sack ex-priest who inspires genuine sympathy; and the scene stealer, Pitt’s exercise enthusiast with too little brain and too much arrested development. Each actor brings just the right amount of manic energy, flirting with parody but never succumbing to it.
While there is plenty of humor to be found in Burn After Reading, ignore the marketing. Probably due to no fault of their own (how do you adequately describe the Coens’ flavor in 30 seconds?), the marketing department has pitched this as an eccentric comedy of errors. After the screening, I re-watched the trailer: scenes that were horrifying in the film were played for yuks in the trailer. Taken out of context they appeared humorous, but in the darkened theater I wasn’t laughing. This has as much to do with personal taste as it does the brothers’ omnipresent balancing act between humor and pathos; Pitt’s valley girl shtick is consistently funny, but when it’s paired with brutal violence and Carter Burwell’s brilliant but unambiguously foreboding score, you’re not sure how to feel. Are you supposed to be laughing? Grimacing? Crying? Maybe all three at the same time? With the Coens, those are rhetorical questions; A, B, C, and D are all correct.
In tone and execution Burn most closely resembles Fargo (sometimes a little too much); the humor doesn’t lie on the surface in broad strokes (as in Raising Arizona) but remains deeply embedded in the characters. Some will respond instantly, but for others it can take multiple viewings and an intimate familiarity with Coens’ children before the innate humor is fully appreciated. More so than any other filmmakers working today, the Coens reward repeat visits.
As in No Country For Old Men and many of their other films, the brothers have mocked standard movie structure; the plot never proceeds predictably (their double-edged sword), and Robert McKee would keel over from all the brazen rule breaking. If you’re expecting a nicely tied bow, look elsewhere; in some cases, major character developments happen entirely off-screen, relayed by two men in a concrete room. No, Burn After Reading is best enjoyed as a fine wine: sipping, sniffing, savoring, nursing. Spending 90 odd minutes with figments of the Coens’ imagination, listening to lines of pure wit, and marveling at their storytelling audacity is where the real pleasure lies.

About the author:
Evan Derrick loves movies, loves talking about movies, and even makes them from time to time. In addition to being the founder and senior editor for, he is also a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle and a father of two beautiful children. He can be reached for comment or complaint at