Burn After Reading

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Burn After Reading
Burn After Reading.png
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJoel Coen
Ethan Coen
Produced by
  • Joel Coen
  • Ethan Coen
Written by
  • Joel Coen
  • Ethan Coen
Music byCarter Burwell
CinematographyEmmanuel Lubezki
Edited by
  • Joel Coen
  • Ethan Coen
Distributed byFocus Features (United States)
StudioCanal (France)[2]
Universal Pictures (International)[2]
Release date
  • August 27, 2008 (2008-08-27) (Venice)
  • September 12, 2008 (2008-09-12) (United States)
  • October 17, 2008 (2008-10-17) (United Kingdom)
  • December 10, 2008 (2008-12-10) (France)
Running time
96 minutes[3]
Budget$37 million[2]
Box office$163.7 million[2]

Burn After Reading is a 2008 black comedy crime film written, produced, edited and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.[5] 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). When they mistake the memoirs for classified government documents, they undergo a series of misadventures in an attempt to profit from their find. The film also stars George Clooney as a womanizing U.S. Marshal, Tilda Swinton as the wife of John Malkovich's character, Richard Jenkins as the gym manager, and J.K. Simmons as a CIA supervisor.

The film premiered on August 27, 2008 at the Venice Film Festival.[6] It was released in the United States on September 12, 2008 and in the United Kingdom on October 17, 2008. It performed well at the box office, grossing over $168 million from its $37 million budget.[2] Critical response was mostly positive, with nominations at both the Golden Globes[7] and BAFTA awards.[8]


Faced with a demotion, Osbourne Cox angrily quits his job as a CIA analyst and decides to write a memoir. When his pediatrician wife Katie finds out, she sees it as an opportunity to file for divorce and to continue an affair with Harry Pfarrer, a married U.S. Marshal with paranoid tendencies. At the instruction of her lawyer, Katie copies and delivers her husband's digital financial records and other files, unknowingly including 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 personal trainer Chad Feldheimer and his coworker Linda Litzke, who mistakenly believe it to contain sensitive government information.

Chad devises a plan to return the disc to Osbourne Cox for a cash reward, with Linda eager to raise money for cosmetic surgery that she cannot afford. After a phone call and unsuccessful meeting provoke Cox, Chad and Linda try to sell the disc to the Russian embassy, meeting with an official who is actually a spy for the CIA.

Osbourne's erratic behavior prompts Katie to change the locks on their house and to invite Harry to move in. Harry is a womanizer and routinely dates and sleeps with women whom he has met online; he coincidentally starts seeing Linda after meeting her on a dating site.

Having promised the Russians more files, Linda persuades Chad to sneak into the Cox house to steal files from Osbourne's computer, but this attempt ends in Chad's discovery by Harry, who shoots him in the head, killing him instantly. Harry searches the body for any clues to Chad's identity, but only finds an empty wallet; he surmises that Chad was a "spook".

At CIA headquarters, Osbourne's former superior and a director learn that information from Osbourne has been given to the Russian embassy, and are perplexed because the information is of no importance and the perpetrators' motive is unknown. A spy assigned to watch Harry observed him dumping Chad's body into Chesapeake Bay; unaware of Chad's identity, the director orders Chad's death to be covered up.

After finding the cars following him to be driven by a divorce lawyer hired by his wife, a depressed Harry meets with Linda, and after hearing her distress at her friend Chad going missing, Harry agrees to help find him, unaware that Chad is the man whom he had shot and killed.

Linda returns to the embassy, believing that the Russians have abducted Chad, but they deny that they have him. After they inform her the contents of the CD she has given them are worthless, she convinces the manager of Hardbodies, Ted (who has unrequited feelings for Linda), to help her by sneaking into the Cox household to gather more files.

Harry and Linda meet in a park, where Linda reveals the address where Chad had gone before disappearing. Harry realizes that Chad is the man whom he had shot, is convinced that Linda is a spy, and flees, panicking.

When Osbourne breaks into Katie's house to retrieve personal belongings, he finds Ted in the basement; Osbourne shoots him, chases him into the street, and kills him with an axe.

The film cuts to the CIA Headquarters, where a discussion between Osbourne's former superior and the director reveals that a surveilling CIA officer intervened, shooting Osbourne and leaving him in a coma. He also says that Harry has been detained while trying to flee to Venezuela, a country with no extradition treaty with the U.S.; the director orders to let Harry continue on to Venezuela rather than deal with the consequences of bringing him into custody. They also reveal that Linda has been captured but has agreed to keep quiet if they will pay for her plastic surgery. The director, confused at the events that have transpired, closes the file containing the events of the film.



Background and writing[edit]

Working Title Films produced the film for Focus Features, which also has worldwide distribution rights.[9]

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,[10] who had already committed to shooting Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road.[11] Mary Zophres served as costume designer, marking her eighth consecutive movie with the Coen brothers.[9] Carter Burwell, a composer who worked with the Coens in 11 previous films, created the score. Early in the production, Burwell and the Coens decided that 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."[12] 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.[13]

Burn After Reading was the first original screenplay penned by Joel and Ethan Coen since their 2001 film, The Man Who Wasn't There.[14] 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."[15] Joel Coen said that they intended to create a spy film because "we hadn't done one before",[16] but feels that the final result was more of a character-driven film than a spy story. Joel also said that Burn After Reading was not meant to be a comment or satire on Washington.[12]

Parts of the Burn screenplay were written while the Coens were also writing their adaptation of No Country for Old Men.[12] 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."[17] Ethan Coen said that Pitt's character was partially inspired by a botched hair-coloring job from a commercial that Pitt had made.[18] Tilda Swinton, who was cast later than were 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 to accommodate the A-list cast.[19]

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.[20] 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.[17]


Principal photography took place around Brooklyn Heights, as the Coens wanted to stay in New York City to be with their families.[21] Other scenes were filmed in Paramus, New Jersey, Westchester County, New York and Washington, D.C., particularly in the Georgetown neighborhood.[5] Filming began on August 27, 2007 and was completed on October 30, 2007.[5] 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."[22]

Festival run and press tour[edit]

The film opened the Venice Film Festival in August 2008.[23]

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"[23] and described Clooney and Pitt's characters as "dueling idiots."[18] 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."[23] 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."[24]

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."[23] 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'."[25]

During a fall movie preview, Entertainment Weekly wrote that Malkovich "easily racks up the most laughs"[26] 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."[26] 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."[26] Swinton said of the dynamic, "I'm very happy to shout at him on screen. It's great fun."[5]

Swinton described Burn After Reading as "a kind of monster caper movie"[24] and said of the characters, "All of us are monsters – like, true monsters. It's ridiculous."[24] 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."[15] 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."[22] Pitt said the cast did little ad-libbing because the script was so tightly written and wove so many overlapping stories together.[16] 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."[27]

Joel Coen said the sex machine built by Clooney's character was inspired by a machine he once saw a key grip build, and by another machine he saw in the Museum of Sex in New York City.[12]


Box office[edit]

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.[28] 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.[2]

Critical reception[edit]

Reviews for the film were mostly positive. It earned a 78% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 249 reviews, and an average rating of 6.9/10. 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."[29] It also holds a 63/100 weighted average rating on Metacritic, based on 37 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[30]

The Times, which gave the film four out of five stars, compared it to then Coen films Raising Arizona and Fargo in its "savagely comic taste for creative violence and a slightly mocking eye for detail."[14] The review said that 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",[14] 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."[14]

Andrew Pulver, film reviewer for The Guardian, awarded the film four out of five stars, calling it "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."[31] Pulver said that the film "may also go down as arguably the Coens' happiest engagement with the demands of the Hollywood A-list."[31]

The Hollywood Reporter reviewer Kirk Honeycutt complimented the actors for making fun of their screen personae, and said that the Coen brothers "... have taken some of cinema's top and most expensive actors and chucked them into Looney Tunes roles in a thriller."[32] 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."[32]

Todd McCarthy of Variety magazine wrote a strongly negative review, saying that the film "tries to mate sex farce with a satire of a paranoid political thriller, with arch and ungainly results."[33] McCarthy said the talented cast was forced to act like cartoon characters, described Carter Burwell's score as "uncustomarily overbearing"[33] 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 wrote that he did not understand what the Coen brothers were attempting with the film: "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."[34]

David Denby of The New Yorker said that the film had several funny scenes, but that they "are stifled by a farce plot so bleak and unfunny that it freezes your responses after about forty-five minutes."[35] Denby criticized the film's pattern of violence 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."[35]

Leah Rozen of People magazine said that the characters' "unrelenting dumbness and dim-witted behavior is at first amusing and enjoyable but eventually grows wearing."[36] But Rozen said that the performances are a redeeming factor, especially that of Pitt, whom she described as a standout who "manages simultaneously to be delightfully broad and smartly nuanced."[36]

Le Monde noticed the film's "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."[37]

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."[38]


The National Board of Review named Burn After Reading in its list of the Top 10 Movies of 2008. Noel Murray of The A.V. Club named it the second-best film of 2008,[39] Empire magazine named it the third-best film of 2008,[39] and Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly named it the seventh-best film of 2008.[39]

Award Category Recipient Result
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Nominated
Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy 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

Home media[edit]

Burn After Reading was released on Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray disc on December 21, 2008. 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.[40]


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  3. ^ "BURN AFTER READING (15)". British Board of Film Classification. September 1, 2008. Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  4. ^ a b c "Burn After Reading (2008)". BFI. Retrieved September 30, 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d Carpenter, Cassie (January 23, 2008). "Fire and ice queen". Backstage. Archived from the original on August 3, 2007. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
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  7. ^ "Golden Globe Awards 2009".
  8. ^ "BAFTA Awards 2009".
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  11. ^ Hutchinson, Sean (September 12, 2018). "10 Fun Facts About Burn After Reading". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  12. ^ a b c d Kelly, Kevin (September 11, 2008). "The Coen Brothers, Burn After Reading, Toronto 2008". SpoutBlog. Archived from the original on September 13, 2008. Retrieved September 12, 2008.
  13. ^ Burwell, Carter. "Carter Burwell's Notes on "Burn After Reading"".
  14. ^ a b c d Wendy Ide (August 27, 2008). "Burn After Reading review". The Times. London. Retrieved September 4, 2008.
  15. ^ a b Wloszczyna, Susan (September 2, 2008). "Fall movie preview: Coens dumb it down with Burn". USA Today. Retrieved September 10, 2008.
  16. ^ a b Barry, Colleen (August 28, 2008). "Burn After Reading debuts in Venice". Associated Press. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  17. ^ a b Fernandez, Jay A (November 21, 2007). "Strikers' dilemma: to write or not". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  18. ^ a b Covert, Colin (November 8, 2007). "Q&A: Coens return to old Country". Star Tribune. Archived from the original on October 10, 2008. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  19. ^ Morrison, Alan (January 2008). "Upcoming Coens". Empire: 183.
  20. ^ "Clooney ignites Coen bros. reunion". Production Weekly. October 22, 2006. Archived from the original on November 7, 2006. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  21. ^ "Fun With George and Brad". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved June 9, 2007.
  22. ^ a b ""Burn After Reading": Autumn". Empire. February 2008.
  23. ^ a b c d "Venice opens with Pitt and Clooney in madcap comed". Reuters. August 27, 2008.
  24. ^ a b c "Burn After Reading - Preview". IndieLondon. October 2008. Retrieved September 4, 2008.
  25. ^ Daniel Fierman (June 8, 2007). "Fun with George and Brad (Cover Story)". Entertainment Weekly.
  26. ^ a b c Karger, Dave (August 22–29, 2008). "Fall Movie Summer Preview, September: "Burn After Reading"". Entertainment Weekly (1007/1008): 47.
  27. ^ Chi, Paul. "Richard Jenkins feels the Burn with Brad Pitt." People, 70 (12), September 22, 2008, p. 34.
  28. ^ "Burn After Reading (2008) - Weekend Box Office Results". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  29. ^ "Burn After Reading (2008)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved February 5, 2021.
  30. ^ "Burn After Reading Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved March 16, 2018.
  31. ^ a b Pulver, Andrew (August 27, 2008). "A tightly wound triumph". The Guardian. London. Retrieved September 4, 2008.
  32. ^ a b Honeycutt, Kirk (August 27, 2008). "Film Review: Burn After Reading". The Hollywood Reporter. Archived from the original on September 1, 2008. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  33. ^ a b McCarthy, Todd (August 27, 2008). "Burn After Reading Review". Variety. Retrieved September 4, 2008.
  34. ^ Corliss, Richard (August 31, 2008). "Baffled by Burn After Reading". Time. Retrieved September 4, 2008.
  35. ^ a b Denby, David (September 15, 2008). "Storm Warnings: Burn After Reading and Trouble the Water". The New Yorker. Retrieved September 9, 2008.
  36. ^ a b Rozen, Leah (September 22, 2008). "Burn After Reading". People. 70 (12): 34.
  37. ^ Mandelbaum, Jacques (December 9, 2008). "Burn After Reading: une galerie de stars lustre le noir des Coen". Le Monde (in French).
  38. ^ Heer, Jeet (July 15, 2017). "We Are Living in the Coen Brothers' Darkest Comedy". New Republic. Retrieved July 16, 2017.
  39. ^ a b c "Metacritic: 2008 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Archived from the original on February 27, 2009. Retrieved January 11, 2009.
  40. ^ Norwitz, Leonard. "Burn After Reading Blu-Ray Review".

External links[edit]