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Review: Burn After Reading (2008)

Updated on September 1, 2020
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I'm a former film student of 6 years with a bachelors degree in film production and screenwriting.

'Burn After Reading' has a compact feeling somehow even with a tangled plot and ensemble cast of characters that meander left, right and where ever they see fit. It follows the sizeable cast through a bizarre chapter in their lives set in Washington DC as they search for love, respect or bitter revenge through manipulation in their largely defunct relationships. The plot spirals and sometimes thrills if just for a moment and by the end has created a mess so big that it's a wonder how they got there. It's the characters and dialogue that shine in this movie, the Coen Brothers witty, sharp and snarky dialogue reveals much about the zany bunch and at times is personal and illuminating.

Joel and Ethan Coen's long standing collaborator, George Clooney takes a central role as Harry Pfarrer, a handsome, neurotic Marshall who has proudly never had to use his gun. Harry seems at first to be reasonably happily married but is having an affair with Katie Cox, a delightfully coldhearted dream-crusher played by Tilda Swinton. She's married to John Malkovich's curmudgeonly alcoholic Osbourne Cox, who has just lost his job as a CIA Analyst because of his alcoholism. If a mere love triangle and the sneaking around this involves is enough backbone for a story You might be surprised that this in only half the cast as another central role is filled by Frances McDormand who previously worked with the Coen Brother's on their classic 'Fargo'. McDormand channels the same happy-go-lucky energy of Marge Gunderson into endearing, motor-mouth Linda Litzke - a woman in the midst of reinventing herself. A surprising and unusual casting for Brad Pitt provides one of the most memorably and lovable characters of the film, the simple, gum-chewing free spirit of Chad Feldheimer, a colleague of Linda at Hardbodies Gym.

Burn After Reading


Perhaps, but appearances can be deceptive...

- Chad Feldheimer

When 'Ozzy' is ousted from his position as a CIA analyst, he plans to write "explosive" memoirs as a kind of self affirmation, but when these memoirs fall into the hands of Chad and Linda, the latter of which will do anything to pay for her cosmetic surgeries, the two attempt to extort Ozzy for a reward. Logically, Clooney's Harry Pfarrer fits into the story as the missing link between the Cox's and Linda Litzke. Dating, Linda and having an affair with Katie, Harry brings a strong focus onto the dysfunctional relationships of the movie. Harry is a strange entity with superficial charisma, he's a ladies man and a disingenuous one at that. When it comes to Katie Cox, Harry is a meek pushover, allowing her to wear the trousers and call the shots, Clooney does a great job of depicting a surface level of calm whilst letting slip a vibe of intense paranoia and people pleasing. It's a shame that he and Malkovich only share a scene together, pitting Harry against the stern, shaved head psychopath of Ozzy Cox made for an entertaining scene of uncomfortable jibes.

However, stealing the show, Frances McDormand gives the stand out performance as sweet and innocent yet determined Linda Litzke. She feels sincere and genuine especially during her introductory scene where she is poked and prodded by her cosmetic surgery consultant and yet is open and honest in this vulnerable position. McDormand also excels in scenes of hysteria and meltdown, she seems to have a natural inclination for screwball comedy. Her dopey sidekick, with bleached blonde highlights and loud and boisterous nature, Chad Feldheimer compliments her very well. This is a surprising side of Pitt who is rarely cast in such slap stick supporting roles. The two of them make a gloriously imperfect duo of crooks, acting out espionage, badly as if all they can do is copy what they have seen in the movies.

Let me tell you something Mr 'Intelligence', we will call you back with our demands.

- Linda Litzke

The cinematography doesn't attempt to steal focus in 'Burn After Reading', rather the strongly defined characters power it forward. That said, there is some use of spoof spy tropes, notably when clueless Chad is sent on negotiation missions, framed in a rear view mirror or ominous jump cuts as Harry has an intense moment of paranoia. The score similarly follows in suit to play on spy conventions in contrast to the exaggerated situation the cast find themselves in. The Coen Brothers rely on their well crafted character dynamics and whip-smart dialogue to create a spoof-tense tone as we the audience are almost always ten cognitive steps ahead of the witless wonders on screen.

Colourful language and creative swears - some of which seem to have caught on in popular lingo, are injected into every scene along with the feeling of urgent hilarity as the bumbling heroes and villains wander into disaster after disaster. An explosive mid-point sets a slightly more sinister tone but doesn't over shadow the ridiculousness of the situation. Rather this straight-out-of-the-blue tonal shift ensures the film pacing doesn't sag, surprises, shocks and saddens a little and sends us into the third act with more than an inkling that the worst is yet to come without the tedium of predictability. 'Burn After Reading' is quite a self assured film, it doesn't try to be something bigger than it is, it doesn't try to be cool, it simply is. Tonally the best touchstone is the Coen Brothers surreal, screwball run-away prisoner tale, 'O'Brother Where Art Thou?'. You'll feel a familiar tone in this, not to mention several similarities between Clooney's charismatic leader and in 'O'Brother' and chatty ladies man in 'Burn After Reading'.


Burn After Reading

Who do you work for?! CIA? NSC?

- Harry Pfarrer

The Coen Brother's have crafted a very funny film with 'Burn After Reading' with enough subtlety and irony to make anyone who doesn't take themselves too seriously chuckle. A cast of characters such as the A-listers in this piece could have easily felt like wasted potential but even a small Cameo from J.K Simmons as a confused and frustrated CIA boss feels like less of a tack on and more of a purposeful nod to the audience. The Coen Brothers are well known for their abrupt endings that leave a plethora of unanswered questions and 'Burn After Reading' is no different. Meant to inspire thought and discussion, this may fall flat for many average movie-goers but for fans of the Coen Brother's it will most likely delight.


4 stars for Burn After Reading (2008)

Burn After Reading Trailer


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