Now here's a paper that was due at the beginning of the semester and I just couldn't seem to come up with anything worth writing about, until it was past time for me to do so!
The Coen's most recent film, Burn After Reading, is pretty funny. It's not as artsy-fartsy as a lot of their other work, but really, we all need to take a break from those sorts of films, even the people who make them.
And without further ado, the paper!
The Coen brothers’ 2008 Burn After Reading tells the intertwined stories of a diverse group of people including gym workers, CIA agents, their love interests and the complete debacle they get themselves into. As with Coen films such as Blood Simple (Film Noir), Miller’s Crossing (Gangster), and Intolerable Cruelty (Romantic Comedy), Burn mimics a film genre, the spy thriller. Moreover, as in many of their films, Burn is infused with over the top characters and challenges to the status quo.
In their comedies more than their dramas, the Coens like to play with the audience’s assumptions about the complexities and non-complexities of their characters. For instance, when asked about the deficiency of their characters in Fargo, Ethan responded, “...to go against the Hollywood cliché of the Bad Guy as a super-professional who controls everything he does” (Allan). Admittedly, it is hard to tell who the bad guy is and who the good guy is in Burn After Reading, and that's another Coen element in and of itself. Frances McDormand’s character, Linda, appears to be just what is expected; a shallow middle-aged woman looking to improve her appearance and thereby her chances for romance. However, Linda is the only character with any goals in the film, goals which she achieves in the end, however superficial they may be. Other characters are driven by different desires – Clooney by sex, Malkovich by recognition, Jenkins by love – but Linda is the only one who takes her desires and creates a goal, to re-invent herself, thus leading to her victory, being one of the few who lives and the only one whose desires are fulfilled. Pitt’s character appears to be devoid of even desires. He simply floats through life, much like a dog, without any concerns, and doing whatever his friends tell him to. When he first calls Malkovich, his only real intent is to return the CD-ROM, and by inspiration from McDormand, he thinks a reward may be in order. The response Malkovich gives him is expected (by the audience), but Pitt's reaction is devoid of any organic emotion – it is entirely supplied by McDormand, her emotional response at having this chance at money slip past her. Pitt's lack of motivation and willingness to be led by others leads to his sudden demise, the first killing in the film. But, here too, the Coens turn our assumptions of what an empty character without motivation looks like. Pitt is empty, but not bland. His character still has little things that make him stand out, such as his insistence on trying to be a Good Samaritan or his affinity for biking and pop-dance jams. These are the kinds of motivations a writer can give an actor to enable the actor to bring the character to life, and the kinds of motivations the Coens are so good at.
A concept often seen in CIA films is a character knowing the full story, someone who has all the pieces of the puzzle, or has at least pieced it together. The Coens play with this concept by showing the meetings between the two CIA officers ranked higher than Malkovich. The two know the entirety of what is happening, but they never quite get a handle on why. The Coens use this for a few reasons. The first, and most obvious, being a slap in the face to critics and film theorists who consistently ask why. Their point is that sometimes the ‘what’ can stand on its own – even though it never does in their films. A simple, satirical, rationale is that the supposedly sophisticated espionage professionals really don’t know what they are doing, and their overriding goal is always cover-up. Which leads to yet another advantage to including these scenes - it allows the Coens to involve a clean-up crew in their story. In some of their earlier films, questions arise; “Where are the police?” “Why hasn’t anyone noticed all these dead bodies?” Much hilarity comes of seeing the ways in which the CIA agents try to clean up this mess, a mess whose origin is a complete mystery to them. They work triage like medics in the field, taking a lot of the omnipresent power the CIA is usually shown to have, and turning it on its head.Although Burn will most likely not go down in the film theory books as one of the Coens’ masterpieces, it contains enough of their standard elements to come out on top, containing that Coen Brothers feeling, if you will. As Ethan Coen once said, “...you have the feeling you're attending a congress of misfits!” (Allan.)