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coen brothers

To borrow a line from a very popular book, the Coen brother’s Burn After Reading is a mostly harmless affair with a brisk pace, sometimes lightening dialog, this dark comedy begins, does its thing, and leaves you to go on your merry way. The film, the first since the Oscar winning No Country for Old Men (a film not held in high regards among our staff), takes a collection of A-list celebrities, casts them in a movie with such obscene stupidity you can’t help but to laugh for 90 minutes before J.K. Simmons steals the entire film as he closes the book on the entire piece.

As with most Coen films Reading focuses on a collection of narratives that culminate together, with characters drifting between each of the stories bridging the gaps. Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is fired from his CIA job because of a drinking problem, his wife, played by Tilda Swinton, is secretly having an affair with married Treasury drone Harry Pfarrer (George Cloony) who is also dating gym-worker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). Linda works with Chad (Brad Pitt) and the two of them come into possession of Cox’s financial statements which they believe are intelligence documents. The logical thing to do with any sensitive document is to blackmail the author, in this case the foul-mouthed Cox, or sell it to the Russians, both of which are attempted.

The plot whirls you around for about an hour and a half, cracking a few jokes along the way, makes you feel dirty for laughing, but producing some decent belly laughs and more than a few chuckles. The writing is done is such a way that not every joke known to man is thrown up against a wall to see which ones stick, each joke is carefully crafted and seem to hit their mark more often than not.

Being a Coen brothers film there is your fair share of outrageous, gratuitous violence including a point blank shot to the face and a hatchet to another supporting character’s head. Its so over the top and unexpected that you’re forced to just laugh and stare in disbelief for a second after it happens, reassuring yourself that you just witnessed what you think you did.

Bit-players David Rasche and J.K. Simmons steal the film however with their dry retelling of the climatic events as it closes and Simmons bewildered CIA director makes the film as funny as it aspires to be. This isn’t to say that the film is necessarily flat or insanely funny the apt principle of mostly harmless really sums it up, whether you watch it or not, enjoy it or not, laugh or not, its over in 90 minutes. For non-fans of the Coen brothers its out of sight, out of mind, for true fans it takes its rightful place in the land of Big Lebowski’s and snow covered Minnesota.

Maybe artful pictures such as No Country for Old Men aren’t for everyone except old men and crotchety old film critics, those in the younger critical circles can certainly see the merit, and artistry in films such as this one, and the pedigree of the directors, Joel and Ethan Coen, is nearly unmatched, but No Country for Old Men ends up becoming lost in itself and its stride to buck the trends of Hollywood in such a way that it is nearly unwatchable at times for the fear you may fall asleep.


The film isn’t particularly long; although it feels as though you’ve just sat down to enjoy the entire 12-hour epic Lord of the Rings trilogy when it begins without a word spoken and long panning shots of desert landscapes and the far horizon. After a few minutes the scratchy voice of Tommy Lee Jones serves as our introduction into this world, but his bookends (both here and at the end of the film describing a recent dream) just leave the audience with a sense of “what the hell just happened here” rather than some conclusion on the story.

There’s no doubt that the film is expertly shot and from what one can tell by not having read the novel in which its based, No Country for Old Men is one of the most faithful adaptations to the source material on the big screen today, but even with all the talent and promise, it never approaches anything above average as it tries to be unique and attempts to lure the user into a rich world of a man on the run from a ruthless killer. We assume this is a rich world because the motivations and exposition of why these characters do what they do is left for you, the viewer, to determine, which further adds to the confusion.


The film’s protagonist, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), discovers a drug deal gone wrong in the desert. Further examination shows a lot of dead bodies, one dead dog, a lone survivor, and two million dollars in a case just ripe for the taking. Moss takes the money, and leaves the survivor, but when his conscious gets the best of him, and he goes back to help the man, the rightful owners of the drugs and money begin searching for him.

From there a game of cat and mouse between Moss and the laughably insane Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) begins and the movie seems as though it’s going to pick up into something akin to The Fugitive, but, instead, it settles down into a morality piece looking at both men, on opposite ends of the spectrum. Through this all Moss’s wife (Kelly Macdonald) seeks the help of Sherriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) who’s close to retirement but knows that Moss might be caught up in something bigger than he can handle and sets out to help the marked man.


There’s just no one to like in the film besides Jones and his deputy side kick who get the films only few laughs during a very serious 121 minutes. The protagonist and antagonist are unlikable as Moss is realistically a thief and strives to take revenge on Chigurh. Bardem’s killer is similarly unlikable and comical in unintended ways as he eats up twenty minutes of screen time posing inane questions and hypothetical situations to potential victims. During these parts the only thing I could think of was Quentin Tarantino’s similarly disappointing bore-a-thon Death Proof and how ending my misery in any way possible could be achieved.

In the end the movie closes with a whisper as Bell recites a dream he had the night before to his wife after retiring from the force and having a long, long conversation with a relative in the middle of the desert. As the screen cuts to black the audience is left dumbfounded and only questioning. It may be a wonderfully written book, and an artfully crafted movie, but that’s keep it from being one of the most boring, overrated films of the year.