The Film Fatale

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This whole thing is so ugly. Have you any idea what it’s like to live with all this? People look at us and only see bigots and racists. Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation is what’s said in the Bible. Genesis 9, verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it. You breathe it. You marry it.

Mrs. Pell [Frances McDormand], Mississippi Burning (1988)

It doesn’t have to make sense

Can the Coen Brothers do any wrong? As if last year was not a big enough year for them with the success of No Country for Old Men (just ask Tommy Lee Jones, who is suing the company who produced No Country for Old Men for royalties he claimed he never received from the unanticipated success of the film), they took on another small-scale but high-concept film starring a whole host of awesome actors, including John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand [Fargo], Tilda Swinton [Michael Clayton], Richard Jenkins [I Heart Huckabees]and J.K. Simmons [Juno]. I’m talking about Burn After Reading, a film with a clever and well-written script and a very controlled set. I say ‘controlled’ because I like the way the Coen Brothers didn’t hesitate to rein in their actors when necessary, or give them complete freedom when they do decide to go all out. 

I won’t even attempt to summarize the film, only because the whole point of it is in the hilarity that all the events that occur are so loony and unrelated and comically stupid that it doesn’t make any sense. The film is basically like a series of unfortunate events–a six degress of separation kind of thing where one stupid act leads to another. All I can say without giving taking anything away from the cleverness of the script is that John Malkovich’s character Osborne Cox (the name is emblazoned in my head after Brad Pitt’s character repeats it over and over again) is fired (or more accurately, demoted) from his post in the CIA and he goes into a depression and decides to write a memoir about all the exploits he participated in while being an agent for in the intelligence agency. His uptight wife Mrs. Cox, played with so much precision by Tilda Swinton, thinks this is absolutely stupid and contemplates divorcing him while having an affair with a former Treasury Department official, played by George Clooney. Mrs. Cox is advised by her lawyer to find as much incriminating evidence on her husband as possible to ensure that she gets a hefty divorce settlement. She finds her husband’s files, with all the CIA information, and saves it onto a disk, which she somehow loses and which ends up in the hands of some really desperate people (in this case, Frances McDormand’s and Brad Pitt’s characters, employees at the hilarious 24 Hour Fitness parody HardBodies). Said desperate people, in turn, decide to blackmail Osborne Cox with the disk, and this leads to all sorts of ridiculous trouble.

This kind of film is difficult to pull off, only because the delivery needs to be on-point that the audience doesn’t even care if everything will make sense in the end. No one actor stood out in this film, because the whole cast was just terrific. George Clooney was, as usual, charismatic and well, you know, George Clooney. I liked that during the intense scenes he shed off the suavity and was actually really commanding and dramatic. Tilda Swinton was just the epitome of the cold, hard bitch in this movie, and she pulled it off with so much precision.


Brad Pitt was just awesome in this movie. One would wonder if he made frequent trips to fitness centers to observe how personal trainers worked, because he was so on-point in his portrayal that you almost forget that this is the same guy who has played intense, dramatic roles in Babel and Legends of the Fall. You know when someone is a great actor when they can just step outside of themselves andbe someone completely outrageous. There was one point in the film where he says the line, “Osborne Cox, I thought you might be worried…about the security…of your shit…” and he says it with so much of the character ingrained in him that it was just absolutely hilarious. Frances McDormand was a star in this movie as a HardBodies employee who is so dissatisfied with her appearance she is desperate to get plastic surgery to improve it. She was kooky, snarling and completely pathetic (in a good way!) and I am so glad that the Coen Brothers brought her on board again in this film.  

And of course, you gotta give it up to John Malkovich. No one could have played the deliriously maniacal Osborne Cox but him. Even as an ex-CIA operative with a major drinking problem and a cheating wife, he managed to make the character come off as indignant somehow that things were happening to him. He was always in command in every scene, and he definitely reminded everyone that he is such a versatile actor. In the opening scenes of the film when he gets demoted and is told it is because he has a ‘drinking problem’, he sneers back, “I have a drinking problem? You’re a fucking mormon! Next to you, we allhave a drinking problem!” I almost fell off my seat at that.

One of the things that also added to the comedy of the film was the kooky music that accompanied the scenes. It did very well to set the atmosphere for the audience, and to make us relate to the characters. The characters in the film start to get so increasingly paranoid about their actions that they feel like there is some sort of giant conspiracy, and the kooky music helps translate this state of mind to the audience. I think that all of actors had to throw caution to the wind for this movie, and I applaud the Coen Brothers for their mastery of direction to be able to pull off a complicated yet deliberately nonsensical film. I know of no other film whose main point was it being nonsensical, and yet managing to be funny. Both thumbs up to the Coen Brothers and to the cast; definitely one of my favorite new films.