When I heard that the Coen Brothers were making a spy comedy as a follow up to No Country for Old Men, I was expecting a comical antidote to the nihilism of that uniquely bleak movie. Well, Burn After Reading is funny (although maybe not as funny as No Country*), but it's not an antidote to the nihilism of No Country. In fact, Burn After Reading is in fact probably more nihilistic.
I would not have thought that was possible. But No Country for Old Men, as bleak as it was, treated life as a vibrant and valuable thing. Ultimately, there may have been no solution to the murderous Anton Chigurh, but his violence was a terrible thing. Every time he took a life, even if it was a character we didn't know, we cringed. The loss of life was a loss that mattered.
Burn After Reading takes the exact opposite approach. A group of idiots (a personal trainer, a federal marshal, an ex-CIA analyst, the CIA analyst's frigid wife, and a lonely woman) are running around, sleeping with and killing each other, after the CIA analyst's memoirs go missing and the personal trainer and the lonely woman try to blackmail him for its return. As expected, things go wrong, people die, and laughs are had. Frequently, those last two are simultaneous.
That's why I regard this film as bleaker than No Country. The external observer in No Country was Tommy Lee Jones. Every death weighed on him; he was never directly involved in the chase for the mad killer, but we saw the true cost of those murders in Jones' eyes. The observers in this movie are a pair of disengaged CIA higher ups. Like Jones, they don't know what's going on, but unlike him they're unmoved by loss of life. When some of the characters die, when another commits murder, when another is in a coma, their only concern is that the agency come out looking ok. They, like the Coens and the audience, are completely divorced from some truly gory and vicious acts. These deaths are mined for comedy, and it's pretty clear that the characters deserve them, for adding to the world's surplus stupidity.
Which is not to say that this movie isn't funny; hell, death is frequently funny on film, especially in the hands of the Coens (Wheezy Joe, anyone)? But outside of some inspired silliness by Brad Pitt as the personal trainer, this movie is never fun. Clooney, Malkovich, and McDormand are also very funny; only Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins are saddled with nothing to do. But even the funniest of Malkovich's rants or Clooney's narcissistic acts or McDormand's cluelessness are anchored by a deep and abiding desperation.
I do recommend this movie. I admired the skill that went into it, and all of the Coens' skills are on full display here: quirky characters, perfect dialogue, inspired deaths, and an attention to detail in all facets of filmmaking. But it's not a fun movie. It's not a happy movie. And it's certainly not an antidote to No Country for Old Men. Rather, it's its more cynical counterpart, in which the devaluation of human life is no longer a tragedy, but a farce. Because of all the laughs, no one will probably condemn it for its nihilism, as they some condemned both No Country and The Dark Knight. But if you ask me, those who are in the business of condemning nihilism should consider this Exhibit A.
This is pretty much what I looked like when I walked out of the theatre.
*Like The Departed, except way bleaker, I found No Country to be a nihilistic tragedy/comedy. All of Woody Harrelson's lines? Brolin's mother-in-law? Tommy Lee Jones' blatantly made up story about the conflict between man and steer? All hilarious.