Monday Movie: Burn After Reading, by David Bax
It wouldn’t quite be accurate to describe Burn After Reading as an underrated piece of the Coen brother’s film output. It’s not that it’s a hated movie by any stretch. Maybe the better term would be overlooked. Coming on the heels of No Country for Old Men, which won an Oscar and is rightly in contention for inclusion on the list of the best movies ever, Burn felt like a trifle to a lot of people. Taken on its own merits, though, this antic, nihilistic, violent, screwball black comedy is an essential element of its directors’ legacy.
The Coens have always had an unsympathetic strain of anarchy in their work. But Burn After Reading might be the only one of their films that is openly disdainful of its own audience. That doesn’t mean just any audience that happens to be watching it, to be clear. They appear to be specifically mocking the type of middlebrow pseudo-intellectual cinephiles that claim to “get” things like the beautifully nebulous ending of No Country. This time around, there is resolutely, proudly, nothing whatsoever to get. A close analysis would only lead to more entropy.
It’s not just the audience who is left out of the loop. Nobody in the movie understands anything either, as summed up by J.K. Simmon’s memorable “What did we learn?” speech at the end (“I guess we learned not to do it again. I’m fucked if I know what we did.”). In fact, those characters who do pretend or assume to comprehend the situation usually end up paying dearly for it. The Coens refuse to take the lives of their characters here seriously, especially if they’re innocent. The film earns its R rating not just with constant course language but also with some fairly upsetting bloodshed.
In the end, the misplaced documents that set the movie’s ping-ponging, overlapping plot in motion are dismissed as drivel. With Burn After Reading, the Coens are daring you to try to make sense of their unique brand of drivel. At your own risk.