Student Voice


February 26, 2024




Coens deliver another quality film with 'Burn after Reading'

September 18, 2008

The Coen Brothers can do no wrong. They are the new dynamic duo; AWOL shogun assassins who continually topple filmdom from the inside out with their own brand of manic movie magic. While the rest of Hollywood runs scared, slaves to an anachronistic code of yesteryear filmmaking standards, the Coens stand alone.

They have distanced themselves yet again with “Burn After Reading,” a spy spoof that doesn’t so much aim to satirize other movies in the genre, but our own antiquated expectations of what that genre is. And the Coens gleefully dance along that razors edge separating affable spoof from malevolent satire. While satire stabs with malcontented sarcasm and malicious wit, spoof simply exaggerates the nook and cranny follies present in any fiction.

While it can’t be said that “Burn After Reading” attempts at any time to slander its sources (the Coens claim inspiration from the Bourne trilogy), it can be inferred that the brothers hope to scold us for ever taking a spy movie with more than a grain of salt. Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a belligerent CIA analyst fired for his drinking problem (his retort to his colleague: “You’re a Mormon! Next to you everyone’s got a f*cking drinking problem!”). Bloated with an undeserved sense of self-worth, Cox decides to punish his former agency by writing a sharp-tongued memoir, much to the chagrin of his adulterous, estranged wife Katie (Tilda Swinton).

Absurdly self-conscious gym employees Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), lustful after a series of cosmetic surgeries and Chad (Brad Pitt), a narcissistic caricature of the stereotypical roided-out retard, find a disk containing a small part of Cox’s commentaries lost in a gym locker, forgotten there by Katie’s divorce lawyer. The two quickly see their chance at easy money by ransoming the disk in exchange for a ‘modest’ cash reward.

While the two stumble through their botched blackmail scheme, Linda scorns the petitions of her manager (Richard Jenkins) and gets involved with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a U.S. Treasury-funded womanizer who is having the affair with Mrs. Cox. Sound confusing? Good, it’s meant to. At one point CIA superior (J.K. Simmons) even laments, “Get back to me when this makes sense!”
The Coens weave an intricate web of dark farce. Their narrative rings with the humored force of a Shakespearean comedy, a modernized “Much Ado About Nothing.”

This latest work dictates a cyclical paradigm to the Coens’ filmography.  After Oscar-winner “Fargo,‘“the pair unleashed the cult-classic caper “The Big Lebowski,” another make-no-sense yet take-no-prisoners send-up of mistaken identity. Now, years later and immediately in the wake of their Oscar-sweeping spectacle “No Country for Old Men,” the pair slip out “Burn.”

Interestingly enough, “Burn” is the perfect accomplice for “No Country,” only this time the old men are CIA suits. Simmons closes the film by joking “...f*cked if I knew what we did…” and I think that’s the point. We’re not meant to understand what has just happened, just laugh at the truth and logic to be found in the illogical.

4 stars

Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.