Joel & Ethan Coen | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R
Ah, the Coen Brothers! Those indie-mainstream praise-magnets that I’ve never particularly got on with. But then, perhaps I was just too young and under-read (or, rather, under-viewed) to get The Man Who Wasn’t There when I watched it; and I did like Fargo, even if I awarded it ‘only’ four stars; and I had a similar perspective on No Country for Old Men, though leaving if off my end-of-year top ten list when some have claimed it’s the only worthy Best Picture winner of the last decade may be seen as filmic blasphemy. (On the other hand, those claimants are wrong. Not very wrong, maybe, but still wrong.) Nonetheless, the rest of the pair’s ’80s and ’90s output (bar, for no particular reason, Raising Arizona) sits in my DVD collection waiting to be got round to… but first, this: their star-studded follow-up to No Country that seemed to disappoint so many. Probably because it was a comedy.
Turns out Burn After Reading is another film I don’t have much to say about. I liked it. It’s nothing like No Country for Old Men, other than being occasionally obtuse, but that’s the Coen’s style. Still, I’m sure No Country is the better — or Better — film, but in the same way I prefer eating a bacon cheeseburger to a pile of vegetables, I think I enjoyed watching Burn After Reading more. Or maybe eating a Chinese would be a better analogy — in the same way you’re hungry again not long after, Burn After Reading is kind of unsatisfying.
You see, as two minor characters observe at the end, we’ve learnt nothing. There’s been a sporadically complex set of coincidences and accidents, some good laughs and some surprises too, but the end result is… what? But maybe that’s the point. For the characters in the film, it’s a confusing mess of a situation they find themselves embroiled in — no one has the full picture, and most don’t properly comprehend the bit they do see. For the viewer, it’s a fun bit of nothing. Things have changed by the end, certainly — most notably, several people are dead — but the events that got us there are pretty quickly forgotten.
Perhaps this is the Coens’ response to No Country for Old Men — not intellectually or artistically, but as people and filmmakers: a break from the existential seriousness of their Best Picture winner with a romp-ish bit-of-nothing, which entertains well enough for the 90-something minutes it occupies our vision but is all but forgotten before the credits have finished rolling.