Experimental Music Love

November 4, 2008

Burn After Reading – Film and Quin

Filed under: Features,film — by Free Edinburgh Podcast @ 11:59 pm
Forget after watching?

Forget after watching?

Burn After Reading – a review by David Quin, age 21 and 4/6.

About half way through Burn After Reading, Joel and Ethan Coen’s new comedy spy thriller, a character dies. Now characters die all the time in movies, especially the Coens’. But there’s something different about this one – it’s an explicit slap in the face for the audience, the death of one of the film’s most engaging characters.

It would be ungrateful to complain about a film willing to wrong-foot the audience, to betray them like this. After all, it’s a move which would feel shocking even in the chic nihilism of films like The Dark Knight, which still, by their climaxes, pat our heads and tell us that everything will be fine in the end, when, in truth, things rarely are. It’s a wonderful feeling as an audience member, to have the rug pulled out from under you. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the film, as a whole, feels substantially undercooked.

The plot is slight, but then so are most of the Coens’ best. A pair of Hardbodies gym employees, Linda and Chad (Francis McDormand and Brad Pitt) discover a disk which contains the memoirs of a fired CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich). Mistakenly believing that they have stumbled upon valuable information, they attempt to blackmail him. Into all this, through various complex plot machinations, are drawn Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton), the paranoid lover she unknowingly shares with McDormand’s character (George Clooney) and the gym manager (Richard Jenkins). One of the film’s main problems is that it feels terribly rushed.

The film is barely 95 minutes long and contains six major characters. As a result few of the characters feel fully fleshed out. Clooney’s bodyguard in particular suffers from this. To his credit, he seems to understand the character totally, but we never do. We are never really allowed to understand why he is paranoid, why he sleeps around. He simply does. As a result, it’s hard to care about his misadventures, or feel why he is in the film.

Malkovich also suffers. His Cox, though fully realised, spends the entire film as a tightly wound ball of rage, bitter and aggressive. An early scene with him and his apparently brain-dead father, not a little reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s explosion of self-loathing at his father in Five Easy Pieces, hints at something fascinating, but it never arises.

The film is edited in such a way as to never give any breathing space for the action. It feels like it takes fifteen minutes until the first wide shot in the film, which, compared to the masterful use of pace in the Coens’ last, No Country For Old Men, feels like a strange regression. The result is that the action overpowers the characters and the atmosphere, which are normally so vibrant in their work. Compared, say, to the nightmarish hotel in Barton Fink, or the louche bowling alley in The Big Lebowski, Hardbodies gym simply doesn’t have character.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have moments of clear-eyed Coen brilliance. Brad Pitt’s Chad and Richard Jenkins’ Ted, despite the fact they have less screen time than Clooney or Malkovich, are fabulous Coen characters, and the only two who feel like they truly belong in the film’s world. Chad, thanks to Pitt’s total, selfless immersion in the character, who never suffers from his starry face, is the film’s anchor, and the film suffers whenever it focuses on the events which don’t involve him. Ted, on the other hand, helps refute the idea that the Coens do nothing but laugh at their characters. Caught breaking into Cox’s house to help Linda he delivers and strange, heartbreaking defence of his actions.

Along with this, there is a reliable cast of supporting players, not least the wonderful JK Simmons, and much of the Coens trademark wonderful, musical dialogue. But these familiar strong points, and the film’s single moment of narrative splendour only help to focus attention on the film’s flaws. Somewhere in Burn After Reading, with an extra half-hour of scenes, there’s something as wonderful as Fargo. It’s just a shame we can only savour the hints of it as it exists today.


1 Comment »

  1. I have to agree with you on understanding Clooney’s character – nothing was given away as to why he behaved the way he did. The most surprising incident was obviously the ‘chair.’ And I was amused with such focus on his public obsessive compulsive type behaviour and fascination with floorboards.

    I also rated Chad’s phonecall with Cox – gold!

    Comment by Cain Doherty — November 5, 2008 @ 12:17 am |Reply

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