After striking Oscar gold with 2007’s No Country For Old Men, you have to give it to directors Ethan and Joel Coen for gamely facing the task of coming up with a worthy predecessor. And what better way to do it than to veer in a completely different direction?
A smart move on the part of the Coen brothers, for how can anyone possibly draw comparisons between No Country For Old Men and this year’s Burn After Reading?
A CD winds up in the hands of Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand), two gym employees who perceive it to contain confidential information about CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) and set out to blackmail him. Cox, a foul-mouthed alcoholic, has other things to worry about. His wife, played by Tilda Swinton, is planning to file for divorce and is involved in a secret affair with Treasury agent Harry (George Clooney), who is also dating Linda. Chaos and confusion ensue, and misunderstanding after misunderstanding occurs as a result of the presumably valuable CD.
The finest point of Burn After Reading is its ensemble of kooky characters, each with his or her personal vices and ambition. The A-list cast prove themselves with strong performances, and Pitt steals the show with his stunning portrait of an airhead.
The plot is wildly unpredictable and the humour, fiendish. In true Coen brothers fashion, this is a black comedy that satirises the power struggles for wealth, security and beauty, using characters each driven by a different motive.
Burn After Reading will be easy to watch but difficult to appreciate if you miss the point and write this off as a harebrained mess of a movie. While it is not a perfect film, it succeeds in presenting an exaggerated outcome of our human imperfections and the things we do to hide them.