Sunday, September 21, 2008

Burn After Reading (Review)

It's interesting the amount of stalking that happens in the Coen brothers’ latest movie—BURN AFTER READING—from Internet searches to tailgating to breaking-and-entering to the use of hired investigators to uncover other people’s secrets.

The film suggests that Americans are all hunting and being hunted. Everyone’s a predator and everyone’s prey.

The little scene in the latter half of the film when a pediatrician (Tilda Swinton) tries to pry a kid's mouth open suggests the callous and intrusive nature of 21st century life. The scene reminds me of the short William Carlos Williams story “The Use of Force,” in which self-justifying authority out-maneuvers the resistance of the powerless, who simply want to be left alone.

This idea is also present in the art direction of the scenes at Hardbodies, the fitness center where three pivotal characters work—adjacent cubicles, glassed in, where privacy and seclusion are not only impossible but no longer desirable.

And our willingness to be intruded upon—poked and prodded by cosmetic surgeons for the sake of constant self-improvement, or publishing self-aggrandizing memoirs, or letting it all hang out on social networking questionnaires (and blogs!)—suggests an anonymously interconnected mass community where privacy and discretion no longer matter.

And in the broader contexts explored in the film, these intrusions affect our economy, our politics, and our "private" (or not so private) lives.

Everybody wants to be an “insider” in everybody else’s business.

And, in return, everybody wants to be an open book.

I have to admit that at the movie’s end I was puzzled and let down. You will be, too, no doubt. But I’m not inclined to think that the Coens have simply failed to present us with a satisfying ending.

I think what they are trying to depict is the futility of all the busy maneuvering we engage in. That is, the satisfying denouement we look for (even in life) does not exist.

Our rush to find and understand the Big Picture—when in fact, in the modern world, the Big Picture is just so much dissonant noise.

Our belief in complexly conceived conspiracies and our fascination with counter-counter-counter conspiracies.

Our trust in optimism and the can-do spirit (Americanism!)—self-improvement for its own sake.

“Keep an eye on everyone,” a CIA boss states at one point. “Report back to me when … I don’t know, when it makes sense.” That moment never arrives.

The cast is uniformly in high gear. Except for J.K. Williams, who plays the tired CIA boss quoted above, all the actors perform with breathless busy-ness that suggests that they are all pitching products—even if the products are themselves.

Brad Pitt plays the eternally boyish, middle-aged personal trainer at Hardbodies, who teams with a fellow employee, played by Frances McDormand, to make a fast buck over some potentially valuable information discovered in the women’s locker room. Both of them giggle and grin their way through characters of no particular intelligence and unfocused ambitions.

John Malkovich plays a disgruntled ex-CIA man, Osborne Cox, whose belief that everyone around him is a moron is both true and no contradiction of the fact that he is something of a moron, too. The only person he can comfortably confide in is his catatonic father. In this film, Malkovich achieves his most animated comic performance since the underseen COLOUR ME KUBRICK three years ago. He makes the character both a voice of reason and a monster of egoism.

As his wife, Tilda Swinton, always a riveting screen presence, plays the ultimate icy bitch. I’m not sure what it is about her, but Swinton always has the power to mesmerize and yet make me feel oddly uncomfortable. Her pinched mouth and cold predatory stares here serve to intimidate her husband and her lover.

George Clooney plays Harry Pfarrer, a federal marshal neurotically obsessed with sex gadgets, pine flooring, lactose, shellfish, and firearms—each obsession begging for Freudian analysis. Clooney goes over the top zany, like the other players—more complications occur in his eyebrows than in the intentionally minimalist/absurd plot.

As a follow-up to the nihilistic NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN last year, the Coens’ latest production supplies us with a nihilistic farce. In both, we have hunters and hunted, inexplicable violence, experienced lawmen who scratch their heads and shrug their shoulders, and mavericks who futilely buck fate and the unwinnable game we call everyday existence.

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