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.
Maybe that’s because the characters never learn. All of them are middle-aged, and all are determined to behave like adolescents. Ozzie sulks about the house like a kid who’s doing nothing on his school break and just daring someone to criticize him for it. The flapping of his limbs might be due to mature alcoholism or to a teenage geekiness that never left him–which is only one of the ambiguities, and opportunities for misbehavior, in which Malkovich revels. Sadly, though, McDormand’s miming of regression involves no such flights of invention: she merely pulls down her chin and pops her eyes in every close-up. If the character were written differently, you might think this was Linda’s way of making herself look ingenuous. But since there’s obviously no brain under that blond pageboy, nor any talent for duplicity, Linda’s rancid girlishness must be real, leaving one of the film’s main performances on the level of a mechanical trick.
This mugging seems all the more grim, given that the actors opposite McDormand perform with such rambunctiousness. The greatest joy of Burn After Reading–I’m tempted to say its only joy–is a runaway Brad Pitt in the role of Chad. Topped by a hairdo even more unfortunate than Linda’s–a kind of sculpted butterscotch pudding shot through with a splash of cream–Pitt bounces through the film like a toddler in a 40-year-old’s body, always sucking on a bottle of some sort, always rushing into situations and then having to wait there while his mind catches up. Alone among the film’s characters, Chad is indifferent to sex, or perhaps is presexual–a circumstance that Pitt seems to have welcomed as a liberation from his usual screen duties, releasing him into pure goofiness.
McDormand’s other opposite number, who completes the motif of vain, middle-aged child’s play, is George Clooney, here wearing the full salt-and-pepper beard of a dedicated home handyman. By profession, Clooney’s character is a federal marshal. By avocation, he putters about in his basement workshop and also screws around on his wife. It’s this latter hobby that links him to Linda and to the nerve-racked household of Osborne Cox–which means, I suppose, that Clooney is playing a human MacGuffin, shuttled back and forth to animate the plot. People do want him, and Clooney shows you why, patting his flat belly with animal self-satisfaction and grinning heartily at anyone who might like to see his teeth. It’s fun to watch his looseness as this go-along guy, happily tossing away a line here, shuffling off a bit of physical business there.
But what does his character ultimately amount to? Just a rude sight gag in the basement workshop; just a mechanism for raising and lowering the middle finger (so to speak) in the audience’s face.
As I stared at that visual message, in which the Coens told me what I could do with myself, I understood that my problem with Burn After Reading has little to do with style. It’s fine that the Coens are obsessed with gleaming technique; if they weren’t, they might turn out something like Choke (the movie that proves you can put Sam Rockwell into a twelve-step program for sex addicts and still generate no laughs). It would also be off the mark to complain of the obvious, that Burn After Reading is yet another Coen brothers gallery of grotesques. (“Do they like the people they create?” the brilliant film critic Kent Jones once asked. “I’d say yes, in the same way that a hunter likes his trophies.”) Artists before them have given us tales told by or about idiots, many of which have even been funny.
So let the Coen brothers tell me that life is absurd, that the world is fallen, that God is illusory but Satan (or Javier Bardem) is emphatically real. I can take it. But when they call me an idiot for listening, I get a little impatient.
Though I suppose I could be positive, like Linda Litzke, and say that this time they haven’t been hypocrites.
My longtime colleague, film critic Godfrey Cheshire, looks awkwardly self-conscious when he puts himself on screen in his new documentary, Moving Midway. The voiceovers he recites are rushed, and the image quality is sometimes so poor that you’d think I’d been the cameraman. Cheshire offers no gleaming technique, no game-playing with genre, no actors taking flamboyant star turns. All he’s got is a very rich subject, a keen intelligence, an openness to other people’s ideas and a story that could move you to happy tears.
The subject, which Cheshire knows firsthand, is the Southern plantation. He knows it as a core American myth (from The Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind to Roots); and he knows it as reality, having grown up on one. On his mother’s side, he is a member of the Hinton family, which at one time owned 26,000 acres of North Carolina, along with the slaves to work them. The Midway of Cheshire’s title is the last plantation house in the family’s possession: a boxy two-story white plank building, with three bays and a Doric portico. The structure had stood on a wooded tract in Raleigh since before the Civil War. But with highway traffic roaring past the front door and shopping malls encroaching on all sides, the current owner of Midway, Cheshire’s cousin Charlie Silver, decided in 2004 to pick up the house and its outbuildings and move them to another site.
The family’s debates about this relocation (will it rile the ghosts?) and the scenes of the move (over open fields and past a quarry) were material to delight any critic aspiring to be a filmmaker: Ross McElwee meets Fitzcarraldo. But the greater opportunity afforded by the move, which Cheshire was smart enough to seize, was the chance to bring in a different point of view: that of Robert Hinton, an associate professor of Africana Studies at New York University, whose ancestors had been born into slavery at Midway. Agreeing to come down to Raleigh to meet Cheshire’s family and witness the relocation, Hinton became chief historian and associate producer of Moving Midway, as well as a droll and acerbic onscreen commentator. “You think the plantation is this house,” he tells Cheshire at one point. “I think it’s those fields.”
The house moves; its meanings move. And though Charlie Silver might seem backward-looking in wanting to return Midway to pastoral isolation, he and his family also move, in a significantly forward direction. Through Cheshire, they come into contact with a previously separate clan of African-American cousins–Hintons descended from the builder of Midway–whose representatives are welcomed as kin when the restored house is reopened.
Moving Midway ends on an improbably hopeful note, with two of the family’s elders standing happily side by side: Cheshire’s mother, Elizabeth, proud daughter of the Confederacy, and her cousin Abraham Lincoln Hinton, great-grandson of an enslaved plantation cook. “Lord have mercy,” Abe laughs, thinking of where he is and how he’s gotten there. To which Elizabeth replies, with laughter and feeling, “Lord have mercy.”