When last heard from, in the closing scene of No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen were revealing to Tommy Lee Jones that grace is freely given by the God they don’t believe in. “Signs and wonders,” Jones had murmured earlier in the film, using the Bible’s words to stave off his dread of a meaningless world; but this struggle was his alone, to be observed by the Coens only at fitful intervals and generally from a distance. For their part, the wood-chipper boys seemed as comfortable as ever with the possibility that an abundance of greed and slaughter might be that and nothing more. Let the last word go to the sheriff with the tenuous faith. They’d already given the movie to the killer with implacable power.
Now, continuing with their carefree agnosticism where they’d left off, the Coens begin Burn After Reading with a view of earth that seems godlike, until they subject it to a pair of demystifications. In the first, which is immediate, you seem to descend through the turning clouds to a building identified as CIA headquarters. God’s eye, evidently, is only a spy satellite. The second demystification, which lasts for the rest of the movie, proves that omniscience even on this mundane level is futile, since we live in an amoral world of petty betrayals and random mayhem. That’s all right with the Coens. Burn After Reading is one of their comedies.
Full of clowns and foolery, signifying nothing, Burn After Reading is as deliberately self-canceling a story as you would expect from its title, or from its setting in an imaginary Washington where no one is the least bit interested in government. The sole character to come close to wonkishness is Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), the last living CIA analyst to wear three-piece suits and bow ties, who likes to hear himself rattle on about “mission” and “higher patriotism” but does so only because he’s been fired for drinking. Now he whiles away the time by screaming obscenities, getting soused at the Princeton Club and composing his “memwah,” which he believes will settle his scores. He’s what Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) would call a negative person.
She, by contrast, is very positively interested in her own appearance (which she wants to improve by means of four or five cosmetic procedures) and also in Internet dating, an endeavor that in her experience demands unswerving optimism. Cheerfully ignorant of the political currents around her, Linda understands nothing of Cox’s memoir when a copy of it, stored on a computer disk, accidentally turns up in the franchise gym where she works. Soon enough, though, at the prompting of her workmate Chad (Brad Pitt), she convinces herself that the disk might bring in money for her makeover.
Had the Coens chosen to add cartoon characters to their genre mix, an animated wiseguy of a rabbit might have popped up at this juncture, to point at the computer disk and hold up a sign marked MacGuffin. Or, rather, “MacGuffin.” Forever keen to re-create film history and then undo the re-creation, the Coens this time have called up some of the trappings of a Hitchcock adventure–the backdrop of public monuments, the foreground of voyeurism, the blundering of an ordinary citizen into peril–but have frustrated Hitchcock’s favorite device by introducing a mystery object that nobody wants to chase. Possession of the computer disk does set off all sorts of trouble for Linda, Chad and several other characters; and yet nobody, Ozzie Cox included, actually wants the thing. Hence the feeling of stasis that settles over Burn After Reading. The tone may be antic and frantic, but the incidents keep looping back on themselves, catching the characters in coils of repetition.