Burn After Reading
Starring George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Francis McDormand, John Malkovich
Written & Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Rating: MA 15+
After conquering the Oscars last year with their superbly austere No Country For Old Men, it seemed the Coen brothers had finally been recognised as the master filmmakers of their generation. A complex study of morality and the nature of violence, the film included all the hallmarks of Joel and Ethan's skilful direction: atmospheric composition, pitch-perfect performances and, above all, something to think about.
Wisely opting to avoid an attempt to replicate this success, the brothers cross the field for their latest effort, producing equally commendable results.
With a portfolio that can be neatly divided into a comedy and a drama division, the Coen brothers follow up where O Brother, Where Art Thou? left off, delivering an absurdist romp of situational humour in Burn After Reading.
The labyrinthine plot, funnily enough, is not entirely removed from No Country For Old Men's intersecting narrative.
An embittered ex-CIA analyst, Osbourne Cox (Malkovich, wonderfully furious) is so absorbed in the writing of his tell-all memoir that he hardly notices his wife, the frosty Katie, (Swinton) is having an affair with Harry, a suburban ladies' man (Clooney, naturally).
Katie's after a divorce, but while collecting financial evidence, she unwittingly copies her husband's confessional onto a disc, only for the confidential information to fall into the hands of gym-junkie goons Chad (Pitt) and Linda (McDormand).
What follows is a chaotic web of blood noses, lino flooring and a whole lot of cursing.
And Russians. Don't forget the Russians.
Burn After Reading is the kind of film that divides a theatre . It's hardly a canned laughter comedy - the Coen brothers' refreshingly unsentimental script is much more likely to garner sporadic cackles. There aren't set-up and executed jokes, but instead, such hideous, conceited, and ultimately relevant players that if you couldn't laugh, you'd have to cry.
But what's more important than the ability to laugh at yourself?
Brad Pitt tests the theory with a hilarious performance as an overgrown jock (complete with ADHD) and, demonstrating a fine comic sensibility, Frances McDormand manages to be both delusional and despicable. Malkovich seemingly had only one line to learn (one which cannot be reproduced on a government website!), and Tilda Swinton reprises her onscreen ice-queen as a WASPish prude.
And then there's Clooney, who slips into his handyman Casanova with suspicious ease...
This amoral crowd of completely unsympathetic characters are mercilessly drawn, and as they move in leaps and bounds of unwavering stupidity, the audience is kept at suitable distance.
The characteristically Coen black humour invests the entire charade with an irreverent wit, and devoid of obligatory character sympathies, we are completely free to laugh at the misfortune that inevitably meets them all.
Schadenfreude it ain't - this is spectator sport.
Burn After Reading is a divisive film of wry, dark comedic flourishes and uncommonly taut direction.
It won't please them all, but for the recluses and analysts, the cynical and the sly, nothing could be better.