Burn After Reading
|Burn After Reading|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Joel Coen|
|Music by||Carter Burwell|
|Distributed by||Focus Features|
|Box office||$163.7 million|
Burn After Reading is a 2008 black comedy crime film written, produced, edited, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It follows a recently jobless CIA analyst (John Malkovich) whose misplaced memoirs are found by a pair of dimwitted gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), crossing paths with a womanising US marshal (George Clooney), also starring Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons. The film had its premiere on August 27, 2008, opening at the 2008 Venice Film Festival. It was released in the United States on September 12, 2008, and in the United Kingdom on October 17, 2008. It did well at the box office, grossing over $168 million from its $37 million budget. Critical response was mostly positive, with nominations at both the Golden Globes and the BAFTA awards.
Faced with a demotion at work due to an alleged drinking problem, Osbourne "Ozzie" Cox (Malkovich) angrily quits his job as a CIA analyst and decides to write a memoir. When his pediatrician wife Katie (Swinton) finds out, she sees it as an opportunity to file for divorce and continue her affair with Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a married U.S. Marshal.
At the instructions of her lawyer, Katie copies and delivers her husband's financial records and other files, including, unbeknownst to her, the draft of Ozzie's memoir. The lawyer's assistant copies the files onto a CD, which she accidentally leaves on the locker room floor of Hardbodies, a local gym. The disc falls into the hands of dim-witted personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) and his co-worker Linda Litzke (McDormand), who mistakenly believe it to contain sensitive government information.
Chad devises a plan to return the disc to Ozzie for a cash reward, with Linda seeing this as a quick solution to come up with money to pay for cosmetic surgery she'd been scheming in vain to afford. After a phone call and subsequent meeting with Osbourne provoke his furious reaction, Chad and Linda try to sell the disc to the Russian embassy. Unbeknownst to them, the Russian "cultural attache" who meets with them is a spy for the CIA.
Osbourne's increasingly temperamental and erratic behavior prompts Katie to change the locks on their house and invite Harry to move in. It is shown that Harry is a womanizer and Katie is not the only "other" woman he's seeing, as he routinely goes on dates to have flings with women he meets online. He coincidentally starts seeing Linda Litzke after meeting her from the dating site.
Having promised the Russians more files, Linda persuades Chad to sneak into the Cox household to steal some from Ozzie's computer. After watching Katie and Harry leave the house, Chad enters the home and starts snooping around until Harry unexpectedly comes home after finishing his post-coital run. Chad rushes upstairs to hide in the bedroom wardrobe closet as Harry enters the bedroom and proceeds to take a quick shower.
After Harry has dressed, he picks up his gun and opens the wardrobe closet to retrieve his holster. Startled at seeing Chad, he reflexively levels his gun and shoots Chad in the head, instantly killing him. Harry then searches his body for any clues to his identity, coming up with an empty wallet and finding the tags from his suit ripped off. He suspects Chad to have been a spy snooping on him.
Two days later at the CIA headquarters, Palmer Smith, Osbourne's former superior, and Smith's director learn that information from Osbourne has been given to the Russian Embassy. They are perplexed: the material delivered to the Russians is of no importance, and the apparent motive of all the involved parties is unknown. Palmer Smith also discloses to the director that the agent they had assigned to spy on Harry had observed Harry dumping Chad's body into the river. The director, unaware of Chad's identity, orders Chad's death to be covered up.
Later that day, Harry and Katie get into an argument that ends with Harry storming out of the house. On his way out, he spots a man who has been trailing him for the past several days. Harry tackles the man and finds out that he is a private detective hired by his wife Sandy to gather evidence of infidelity to divorce him. Separately, it is revealed that Sandy is having an affair of her own. Harry is devastated at the surprise revelation of Sandy's divorce plans and goes to see Linda to vent his despair. However, a distressed Linda complains to Harry that she can't always be the one to listen to everyone's problems and confides she has her own issues: "her friend Chad" is missing. Harry agrees to help find Chad, unaware that Chad is the man he shot and killed earlier.
Linda returns to the Russian embassy under the impression that they have abducted Chad. The Russians tell her they do not have him. They dismiss the CD contents as "drivel" and escort Linda out of the embassy. She turns to Ted Treffon, the kindhearted manager of Hardbodies, who has unrequited feelings for her, and begs him to help her by sneaking into the Cox household to gather more files from Osbourne's computer.
Harry and Linda meet in a park. Harry notices a man in the park who appears to be surveilling him. Linda recognizes him as a man she had previously gone on a date with but denies knowing him, furthering Harry's suspicions. When Linda reveals the address where Chad had gone before disappearing, Harry realizes that Chad is the man he shot. Convinced that Linda is a spy and that everyone in the park is surveilling him, he panics and flees.
Osbourne becomes unhinged when he finds out that Katie has emptied his bank accounts and decides to break into the house to get his alcohol and personal belongings. Finding Ted in the basement, Osbourne shoots Ted and then chases him onto the street where he starts attacking him with a hatchet.
At CIA headquarters a few days later, Palmer Smith tells the director that a surveilling CIA agent intervened in the fracas between Osbourne and Ted, shooting Osbourne and leaving him in a coma, and that Ted subsequently died from the attack. He also says that Harry has been detained trying to flee to Venezuela, a country with no extradition treaty with the United States. The director instructs Palmer to send Harry to Venezuela with the implication that he'd rather let Harry "get away" than have to deal with the aftermath if they were to bring him into custody. The director and Palmer agree to leave Osbourne comatose and only worry about dealing with him if he ever wakes. Linda promises to keep quiet if they will pay for her plastic surgery, to which the director agrees.
Palmer and his director try to understand and make sense of all the events that have happened. They conclude that there appears to be no lesson for the agency to learn from the events. "I guess we learned not to do it again," the director says, despite not knowing exactly what they did, and closes the file.
- George Clooney as Harry Pfarrer
- Frances McDormand as Linda Litzke
- Brad Pitt as Chad Feldheimer
- John Malkovich as Osbourne Cox
- Tilda Swinton as Katie Cox
- Richard Jenkins as Ted
- Elizabeth Marvel as Sandy Pfarrer
- David Rasche as CIA Officer Palmer
- J. K. Simmons as CIA superior
- Olek Krupa as Krapotkin
Background and writing
Burn After Reading was the first Coen brothers film not to use Roger Deakins as cinematographer since Miller's Crossing. Emmanuel Lubezki, four-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer of Sleepy Hollow and Children of Men, took over for Deakins, who had already committed to shooting Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road. Mary Zophres served as costume designer, marking her eighth consecutive movie with the Coen brothers. Carter Burwell, a composer who worked with the Coens in eleven previous films, created the score. Early in the production, Burwell and the Coens decided the score should be emphatically percussive to match the deluded self-importance of the characters, and they noted the all-drum score for the political thriller Seven Days in May. Joel Coen wanted the score to be "big and bombastic,... important sounding but absolutely meaningless." Carter Burwell wrote that a percussive score would help "avoid any emotional comment" and "would lend an air of sobriety, gravity, and bombast to the general silliness". The Burn score ultimately made frequent use of Japanese Taiko drums.
Burn After Reading is the first original screenplay penned by Joel and Ethan Coen since their 2001 film, The Man Who Wasn't There. Ethan Coen compared Burn After Reading to the Allen Drury political novel Advise and Consent and called it "our version of a Tony Scott/Jason Bourne kind of movie, without the explosions." Joel Coen said they intended to create a spy movie because "we hadn't done one before," but he feels the final result was more of a character-driven movie than a spy story. Joel also said Burn After Reading was not meant to be a comment or satire on Washington D.C.
Parts of the Burn screenplay were written while the Coens were also writing their adaptation of No Country for Old Men. The Coens created characters with actors George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and Richard Jenkins in mind for the parts, and the script derived from the brothers' desire to include them in a "fun story." Ethan Coen said Pitt's character was partially inspired by a botched hair coloring job from a commercial the actor filmed. Tilda Swinton, who was cast later than the other actors, was the only major actor whose character was not written specifically for her. The Coens struggled to develop a common filming schedule among the A-list cast.
Production Weekly, an online entertainment industry magazine, falsely reported in October 2006 that Burn After Reading was a loose adaptation of Burn Before Reading: Presidents, CIA Directors, and Secret Intelligence, a memoir by former U.S. Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner. The Coen brothers script had nothing to do with the Turner book; nevertheless, the rumor was not clarified until a Los Angeles Times article more than one year later.
Principal photography took place around Brooklyn Heights, as the Coens wanted to stay in New York City to be with their families. Other scenes were filmed at Paramus, New Jersey, Westchester County, New York and Washington, D.C., particularly in the Georgetown neighborhood. Filming began on August 27, 2007 and was completed on October 30, 2007. John Malkovich, appearing in his first Coen brothers film, said of the shooting, "The Coens are very delightful: smart, funny, very specific about what they want but not overly controlling, as some people can be."
Festival run and press tour
The Coen brothers said idiocy was a major central theme of Burn After Reading; Joel said he and his brother have "a long history of writing parts for idiotic characters" and described Clooney and Pitt's characters as "dueling idiots." Burn After Reading is the third of four Coen brothers films with Clooney (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and, later, Hail, Caesar!), who acknowledged that he usually plays a fool in their movies: "I've done three films with them and they call it my trilogy of idiots." Joel said after the last scene was shot, "George said: 'OK, I've played my last idiot!' So I guess he won't be working with us again."
Pitt, who plays a particularly unintelligent character, said of his role, "After reading the part, which they said was hand-written for myself, I was not sure if I should be flattered or insulted." Pitt also said when he was shown the script, he told the Coens he did not know how to play the part because the character was such an idiot: "There was a pause, and then Joel goes...'You'll be fine'."
During a fall movie preview, Entertainment Weekly wrote that Malkovich "easily racks up the most laughs" among the cast as the foul-mouthed and short-tempered ex-CIA man. The first scene Malkovich performed was a phone call in which he shouts several obscenities at Pitt and McDormand. But Malkovich could not be on the sound stage for the call because he was rehearsing a play, so he called in the lines from his apartment in Paris. Regarding the scene, Malkovich said, "It was really late at night and I was screaming at the top of my lungs. God knows what the neighbors thought." Swinton plays Malkovich's wife who engages in an affair with Clooney, although the two characters do not get along well. Clooney's and Swinton's characters also had a poor relationship in their previous film together, Michael Clayton, prompting Clooney to say to Swinton at the end of a shoot, "Well, maybe one day we'll get to make a film together when we say one nice thing to each other." Swinton said of the dynamic, "I'm very happy to shout at him on screen. It's great fun."
Swinton described Burn After Reading as "a kind of monster caper movie," and said of the characters, "All of us are monsters – like, true monsters. It's ridiculous." She also said, "I think there is something random at the heart of this one. On the one hand, it really is bleak and scary. On the other, it is really funny. ... It's the whatever-ness of it. You feel that at any minute of any day in any town, this could happen." Malkovich said of the characters, "No one in this film is very good. They're either slightly emotional or mentally defective. Quirky, self-aggrandizing, scheming." Pitt said the cast did little ad-libbing because the script was so tightly written and wove so many overlapping stories together. Veteran actor Richard Jenkins said the Coen brothers asked him if he could lose weight for his role as the gym manager, to which Jenkins jokingly replied, "I'm a 60-year-old man, not Brad Pitt. My body isn't going to change."
A key theme explored by Burn After Reading is perspective, or absence of, explored both through dialogue and visual elements. Linda Litzke's introduction employs both techniques, as the camera is given her own perspective, highlighting her physical insecurities through close-up, along with the doctor's response to her question regarding a scar she worries may be perceived as “unsightly”: “Personal taste!”, he says. While religion is a theme only briefly touched upon in the film, it does explore the array of possible outcomes when one breaks God's laws, and the title could even describe the way in which we as humans have treated God's Word. Burn After Reading employs themes based around the human psyche. Paranoia underpins the characters thoughts, which is displayed throughout the film. It is this paranoia faced that validates the extreme violence. Furthermore, reflecting the Coen Brothers fascination with bringing ordinary people into extraordinary situations. Murder being the key entity to ordinary people's uncharted land. The theme of paranoia shows a social commentary on the Americanised fixation with youth and splendour. Circling back to the human psyche's existentialist fears, to a point that menial problems drive basic human instinct.
The Coen Brothers utilise an element of mise-en-scene evident in their previous work: the colour green as an anchoring point. In the case of Burn After Reading, it is the green cover of the disc which, when misplaced, causes so many of the films events to take place. Green plays a significant role in both The Big Lebowski, with Bunny's nail varnish and No Country For Old Men, with the motel doors. The film also employs a ‘split-commentary colour scheme’, of reds, greens and teals. Burn After Reading's absurdity borders upon caricature, giving the film its comical categorisation. The Coen Brothers fixates on the comedy of fools, focusing predominantly on characters that are dumbed down for comedic effect, it reflects their stylistic intentions to explore a somewhat exaggerated reality. Burn After Reading takes the characters clownish behaviour and punishes them with dark penalties, which underpins the narrative with a dark undertone, an attribute common throughout the Coen Brothers’ filmography which deals with screwball-farce conventions.
In its opening weekend, the film grossed $19,128,001 in 2,651 theaters in the United States and Canada, ranking number one at the box office. As of July 2009, it has grossed $60,355,347 in the United States and Canada and $103,364,722 overseas adding up to $163,720,069 worldwide gross.
Reviews for the film were mostly positive. It earned a 78% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 243 reviews, and an average rating of 6.86/10. The website's critical consensus states, "With Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers have crafted another clever comedy/thriller with an outlandish plot and memorable characters." It also holds a 63/100 weighted average rating on Metacritic, based on 37 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". The Times, which gave the movie four out of five stars, compared it to Coen films Raising Arizona and Fargo in its "savagely comic taste for creative violence and a slightly mocking eye for detail." The review said the attention to detail was so impeccable that "the Coens can even raise a laugh with something as simple as a well-placed photograph of Vladimir Putin," and complimented Carter Burwell's musical score, which it described as "the most paranoid piece of film music since Quincy Jones's neurotic soundtrack for The Anderson Tapes." Andrew Pulver, film reviewer for The Guardian called the movie "a tightly wound, slickly plotted spy comedy that couldn't be in bigger contrast to the Coens' last film, the bloodsoaked, brooding No Country for Old Men." Pulver, who also gave Burn After Reading four out of five stars, said it "may also go down as arguably the Coens' happiest engagement with the demands of the Hollywood A-list." Pulver said Brad Pitt had some of the funniest moments and that compared to the other Coen brothers movies, Burn After Reading most resembles Intolerable Cruelty. The Hollywood Reporter reviewer Kirk Honeycutt complimented the actors for making fun of their screen personae, and said the Coen brothers "have taken some of cinema's top and most expensive actors and chucked them into Looney Tunes roles in a thriller." Honeycutt also said "it takes awhile to adjust to the rhythms and subversive humor of Burn because this is really an anti-spy thriller in which nothing is at stake, no one acts with intelligence and everything ends badly."
Todd McCarthy, of Variety magazine, wrote a strongly negative review of Burn After Reading, which he said "tries to mate sex farce with a satire of a paranoid political thriller, with arch and ungainly results." McCarthy said the talented cast was forced to act like cartoon characters, described Carter Burwell's score as "uncustomarily overbearing" and said the dialogue is "dialed up to an almost grotesquely exaggerated extent, making for a film that feels misjudged from the opening scene and thereafter only occasionally hits the right note." Time film critic Richard Corliss said he did not understand what the Coen brothers were attempting with the film, and after describing the plot, wrote, "I have the sinking feeling I've made Burn After Reading sound funnier than it is. The movie's glacial affectlessness, its remove from all these subpar schemers, left me cold and perplexed." Corliss complimented Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons for their brief supporting roles. David Denby of The New Yorker said the movie had several funny scenes, but they "are stifled by a farce plot so bleak and unfunny that it freezes your responses after about forty-five minutes." Denby also criticized the pattern of violence in the movie, in which innocent people die quickly and the guilty go unpunished. "These people don't mean much to [the Coen brothers]; it's hardly a surprise that they don't mean much to us, either. ... Even black comedy requires that the filmmakers love someone, and the mock cruelties in Burn After Reading come off as a case of terminal misanthropy."
Leah Rozen, of People magazine, said the characters' "unrelenting dumbness and dim-witted behavior is at first amusing and enjoyable but eventually grows wearing." But Rozen said the performances are a redeeming factor, especially that of Pitt, who she described as a standout who "manages simultaneously to be delightfully broad and smartly nuanced."
Le Monde noticed its "particularly bitter image of the U.S. The alliance of political incompetence (the CIA), the cult of appearance (the gym club) and vulgar stupidity (everyone) is the target of a settling of scores" where the comedy "sprouts from a well of bitterness."
Almost a decade later, The New Republic senior editor Jeet Heer argued that the film was "singularly prophetic of the [Donald] Trump era", anticipating "the Trump campaign's collusion with Russian operatives" and "the wider culture of deceit that made Donald Trump's rise possible. More than just a satire on espionage, the movie is scathing critique of modern America as a superficial, post-political society where cheating of all sorts comes all too easily....The most disturbing thing about Burn After Reading, though, is how it resembles every day in Trump's Washington, where the line between blundering idiocy and malevolent conspiracy is increasingly blurred."
The National Board of Review named Burn After Reading in their list of the Top 10 Movies of 2008. Noel Murray of The A.V. Club named it the second best film of 2008, Empire magazine named it the third best film of 2008, and Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly named it the seventh best film of 2008.
|Golden Globe Awards||Best Comedy or Musical||Nominated|
|Best Lead Actress in a Comedy or Musical||Frances McDormand||Nominated|
|BAFTA Awards||Best Original Screenplay||Ethan and Joel Coen||Nominated|
|Best Supporting Actor||Brad Pitt||Nominated|
|Best Supporting Actress||Tilda Swinton||Nominated|
Burn After Reading was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc on December 21, 2008, on Region 1. The Region 2 version was released on February 9, 2009. The Blu-Ray contains three bonus features, including behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew.
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