Snark maybe is as snark does, but aren’t there cases where snark is justified? Anyone expecting Joel and Ethan Coen to have for some reason moved on from their general, though not entirely successful, repression of their usual contempt for their characters in their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men to a higher, more human plane of cinema for their follow-up, Burn After Reading, will be sorely disappointed. This may in fact be their most hate-filled film yet, where only one character escapes the wrath of the writing/directing/producing brothers’ sensibility that all characters should be objects of derision and laughter. But—and this is a crucial but—the Coens have perhaps come to understand their hatred a bit better. Populated by unfaithful, blackmailing, murderous Washington D.C. suburbanites, intelligence and legislative wonks with not a moral bone in their bodies, Burn After Reading treats characters that deserve a degree of contempt with the contempt they perhaps deserve.
Weaving a cross-suburban tale of Crash-level connectivity on scale of proper high bureaucracy banality, the firing of a talented CIA analyst (John Malkovich) prompts his wife (Tilda Swinton), who is cheating with an ex-bodyguard (George Clooney), to accidentally lose a copy of his memoirs of time spent in the intelligence business. The data trickles down the social ladder from these upper-class twits to the morons who work at the local gym (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), who mistake the memoirs for spy intelligence and promptly try to blackmail the analyst and take the data to “the Russians.” Further connecting the unfaithful husbands and wives with the unscrupulous gym employees is McDormand’s desperate attempts at D.C. dating, which hooks her up with Clooney’s perpetually unsatisfied lover and further cross-pollinates the self-hating upper-class with the ruthlessness of the middle-class. With minimum human vitality in the functionally anonymous mise-en-scène, the Coens' meticulous, and eventually impressively calibrated craft drives more and more rhythmic energy into the film's morally dead portraiture as it proceeds. By the end, we have a swift, snarky picture of lonely, miserable, unethical people struggling to be less lonely and less miserable by being even less ethical.
Does this make Burn After Reading’s scorn for nearly everyone in the picture alright? Even Brad Pitt’s perpetually cheery gym trainer—notably the only optimistic person in the film—is characterized as only an idiot to be laughed at. Only one character, played by Richard Jenkins, is not only genuinely good but genuinely unmocked by the filmmakers, and perhaps the film’s intention is best shown in the rather unpleasant conclusion to his amorous desires. Behind the hate, the film's intention is to illustrate how utterly misdirected “Washington” is in all that Burn After Reading blithely skims across, principally personal moral values in confluence with governmental intelligence work. Bad energy, wrongfully directed, translated into evil deeds and callous attitudes, in other words. That J.K. Simmons and David Rasche, as Malkovich’s superior officers who eventually catch wind of the various shenanigans being perpetuated in the burbs, get the film’s best scenes, that of cynical, professional, and off-hand casual dismissal and cover-up of all that is transpiring, is the case-in-point. This sinister screwball comedy is all about how the country is going down the crapper because awful, petty people are doing awful, petty things that are absorbing all of our intention. If the film seems frivolous, that is the point. If it seems nasty, that too, is the point, at least to a degree. So, unlike the filmmaking brothers’ other mean-spirited films, Burn After Reading takes their directorial sensibility and channels it in a brutal and occasionally unfair but otherwise speedy, pithy, and unsparing satire of both the contemporary government and the people who make and let the government become so foolish and frivolous. As social criticism, submerged slightly in off-beat and off-hand genre, it actually is brisk, neat, intelligent, and awfully funny, with an emphasis on the awful.