A startling departure from the Coens’ previous No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading seems to have sprung from an earlier epoch in the brothers’ career. Whereas that award winning Texas movie reaffirmed the writing and directing team in the eyes of cultural critics, this next film confounded those same people.
No Country, whether one appreciated it or felt the film was an overt attempt to seriousness from a team best suited for ironic crime films, was beautifully rendered by the Coens’ constant companion behind the camera, Roger Deakins. The drab desert colors suited the picture, its setting and what transpired. For this 2008 comedic take on espionage – something like an updated Pink Panther sans industry professionals – the Coens’ tapped Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot the film. And while Burn After Reading counts as something of a topical return to form, the film doesn’t outwardly look like a Coen Brothers’ film.
There’re as many day scenes out of doors – without an overcast sky – as there are night time interiors overwhelmed with shadow. The one moment in Burn that harkens back to the marriage of interesting plots and beautifully shot scenes is when George Clooney’s Harry Pfarrer character walks into the middle of his street, standing under an arch of trees trying to see who’s parked down the way. It turns out to be a detective hired to suss out the man’s extra-marital affairs, but we’ll get to that.
Updating and recasting the espionage film should suit the brothers. And it does to a point. With the various bumbling characters inserted into this convoluted narrative, there’re enough sub plots and inventive scenarios to have made a film of serpentine twists and surprises. Unfortunately, with so much going on, the brothers did allocate enough time to properly flesh everything out.
The sexual escapades of every character – and it’s pretty all inclusive as Clooney beds no less than three different women – is a thoughtful and rather modern way to connect disparate plot points. Again, though, the finer points are mostly lost in characters repetitious dialogue - Frances McDormand’s Linda Litzke character prattling on about surgeries – and a hurried pace to fit everything in.
In that, though, the Coens crafted a feature that doesn’t really posses a significant lull, something the pair’s struggled with over its entire career. The intricate characters created for the film, a constant in the Coens’ work, have a good deal to do with that.