Burn After Reading
Director: Joel Coen Run Time: 96 min. Format: 35mm Rating: R Release Year: 2008
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton
“The Russians? Are you sure?”
Released in 2008, on the heels of the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading was received as a glossy oddity in the Coens’ filmography: a send up of 70s spy thrillers that also satirized its characters’ hopelessly anachronistic attitudes towards 21st century cloak-and-dagger realities.
In a post-Iraq zeitgeist, the idea of opportunistic Americans peddling state secrets to the former Evil Empire was meant as a joke, but a decade later, the film’s thawed-out-Cold War comedy looks prescient and downright trenchant; the “league of morons” envisioned by John Malkovich’s career spook has become not an exaggerated metaphor for our current political situation but a conceptual Trump card as radical as reality itself. Fleetly paced, supremely mean-spirited and exceptionally well-performed by a group of movie-stars-turned-clowns — Brad Pitt’s doomed gym rat is his most sublime characterization — Burn After Reading shows off its creators’ twin gifts for convolution and clarity, topping off its circular plot with a viciously absurdist coda that nods to (and arguably equals) Kubrick’s Strangeloveian misanthropy.
“What did we learn?” asks one CIA higher-up of his superior at the end of a roundelay of adultery, murder, and mistaken identity — the answer, when it comes, is as inevitable, chilling, futile and human as it gets.