Sunday, September 21, 2008

Burn After Reading

Some thoughts on Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers' newest.

1. The Coen Brothers almost always set their movies in a very specific time. Think of The Big Lebowski, set just as the (first) Gulf War was about to start ("this will not stand, this aggression"). Think of The Ladykillers, which I suspected was meant to take place no later than 1999, or else the final joke (a black lady gives her windfall to Bob Jones University) wouldn't work (after the 2000 Republican primary, most likely she would have known that Bob Jones University was a racist institution).

Burn After Reading is set right now. It's a commentary on the present moment, on how everything's run by idiots today. This post on Digby nails that aspect of it, which is articulated in the film by John Malkovich's character, Cox. Cox is as much an idiot as everyone else in the film, of course, but he also represents the kind of old-fashioned patrician strain in American government, State and CIA, that shows up as a trope in spy movies, X-Files (with Mulder's family house on Martha's Vineyard), etc. God only knows if it has any basis in reality, but the Coens seem to be using it as an example of the kind of professional competence we're losing in the current cronyocracy. Cox is an idiot, but at least he knows his job. Or does he? After all, before getting the ax he was on the Balkans desk, and we see how well that's gone... Cox is better than his successors (Clooney's character, in Homeland Security), but worse, we can only assume, than his father, whose near-comatose state might as well be caused by shock at how far things have fallen...

In its merciless take on 2008, Burn After Reading might just be the Coens' darkest movie yet. And that's saying a lot.

2. The Coen Brothers almost always set their movies in a very specific place. Miller's Crossing is the exception in never telling us exactly where it's happening, but aside from that, their movies form a sort of travelogue of a certain vision of America, and a commentary (snide, to be sure, but dead on) about each place. As the Coen Brothers' D.C. movie, Burn After Reading shows us a totally bifurcated city, an elite class of people who run the country and a not-so-elite class of people who are run by the country. Both, in this film, are idiots: the blind leading the stupid, or vice versa. And of course everybody's spying on everybody. The Security State. Report any suspicious packages, or neighbors. Bush's America.

3. The Coen Brothers' films almost always have one character who represents pure evil. (I'm not sure who first articulated this; a former roommate pointed it out to me after Fargo. I doubt he's the one who thought of it.) Gaear Grimsrud in Fargo, Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. This time I think they reverse the formula: there's only one character in this film who isn't evil, Linda's boss, the ex-Orthodox priest. And even he ends up breaking and entering. Like I said, dark.

4. Yes, I realize that the Coens themselves would deny all of this.

5. By the way, I loved this movie.

1 comment:

Cat said...

I loved this movie too! And I loved that even as he expresses some sentiments of disgust that this snobby formerly-blue-state-inhabiting Northeasterner sometimes shares, Malkovich's character also demonstrates some of the limitations and dangers associated with elitism. In the Princeton alumni scene, they sing the version of the alma mater from before coeducation. (There was a big row when the lyrics were changed from "our sons we'll give" to "our hearts we'll give"). Plus, drinking yourself to death not really alleviated by the sign of cultural attainment that is mixing the cocktails in the right proportions.

Another grim element of the movie to me is that one of the most likeable characters, J. K. Simmons' wearily bewildered CIA boss, is perhaps the most ruthless. And that's saying a lot given the bar of ruthlessness set by positive-thinking, self-hating Linda!