The Red Right Hand

Intelligence Is Relative

Ethan Coen
Joel Coen

Brad Pitt
Frances McDormand
George Clooney
John Malkovich

First off, I am a very big fan of the Coen brother's work; so much so that I even forgave them for The Ladykillers and the bloody awful Intolerable Cruelty. This film is a very typical Coen comedy and as such, a lot of nothing seems to happen to broadly drawn characters but little is actually resolved. The best comparison I can draw would be with The Big Lebowski - released in 1998 to middling reviews before generating a cult following and finally being heralded as one of the perfect social commentaries on nineties America (especially California); in essence a stupidly clever film with only one clear message, 'this film is stupidly clever.' Burn After Reading casts the same scrutinising lens over the opening decade of the 21st Century to illustrate that everyone's being spied upon by somebody, everyone's paranoid and yet nobody really knows anything.

The plot of this film is quite intricate and interweaving, as is to be expected. The film opens in CIA headquarters, (Langley, VA) to a meeting in which CIA analyst, Osbourne Cox [Malkovich], is dismissed from his post; enraged that he has been fired, Cox decides to write a tell-all memoir. Meanwhile, Cox's wife, Katie [Tilda Swinton], is having an affair with bumbling, sex addicted, Treasury Marshall, Harry Pfarrer [Clooney] and decides to investigate her husbands earnings and assets before filing for divorce. The data she retrieves is written to a CD which is accidentally left in a gym and found by employees Linda Litzke [McDormand] and Chad Feldheimer [Pitt]. A combination of Chadís childlike curiosity and Linda's desperate need to pay for elective surgeries leads them to open the file, mistake the memoir notes for actual CIA intelligence and pull the name of the CD's author with intent to blackmail.

Essentially this is an incredibly well filmed, smart movie about stupid people (innocent morons who want nothing more than free handouts). Personally, I thought the duration and ending were fantastic (see highlighted scene below) and finished the film perfectly; however, this will be a bone of contention with many viewers. There were also slight pacing issues as the film did feel like it was dragging ever so slightly but as stated, this is a Coen flick and certain elements should be expected (profanity being the other one). My main point of frustration wasn't so much with the film itself but the idiots in the audience. The credits rolled and either side of me sat two confused groups; to my left two young ladies and to my right a male/female couple. The latter turned to each other and said, "That was a bit confusing... sort of funny, though" and the girls to the right squawked, "I don't get it, what was the present for his wife? What happened there?" IDIOTS! I wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake them shouting, "Those people on screen, the idiots who do and say stupid things without thinking; THAT'S YOU!" You see, the problem with casting people like George Clooney and Brad Pitt is the whole hoard of retards those names attract; the fault of neither the actors nor the film but a stigma nevertheless.

At the end of the day, people are going to moan about the violence and the swearing and how confusing it was to them and that the ending was abrupt and all the characters ran around fussing over nothing and nothing was achieved but ultimately, that was the point! The whole point of the film was to highlight and illustrate the absurdity of the logic driving contemporary Washington. In other words, if you don't understand this film, you're probably one of the characters within.

Release Date:
17th October 2008

The Scene To Look Out For:
Spoiler at the end
Inter-cut within the narrative is a series of short dialogue scenes between CIA Officer Palmer [David Rasche] and his superior [JK Simmons]. Despite their brief length and morbid subject base, they provide immense comic relief, regularly poking fun at the nonchalant attitude of the current administration and the general ignorance of intelligence officers. Most notably, the finale in which the baffled director states, "So, what did we learn? I guess... not to do it again. I don't know what the fuck it is we did but.." then he closes the file. Brilliant!

Notable Characters:
A lot of Pitt's recent work has been focusing on his artistic talent and merit and has paid off extremely well. However, it is nice, every once in a while, to give him a brain-dead, pretty boy character to just run with. The same could be said for Frances McDormand and the sheer naivety and innocence of these characters made them a complete joy to watch.

Highlighted Quote:
"You're a Mormon! Compared to you we all have a drinking problem!"

In A Few Words:
"Typically splendid comedic farce"

Total Score:

Matthew Stogdon