Movie Review: Burn After Reading


Burn After Reading

Reviewer: Robleh Wais

The Coen Brothers have made a series of unusual films that I find captivating. Blood Simple was the first in this series. It showed from a basic misunderstanding very deadly consequences can ensue. It was a drama. Burn After Reading is a film that uses the same theme to develop a plot but to comedic effect.

Though I know Joel and Ethan Coen are not mathematicians and Burn After Reading (released in 2008) was not intentionally made to illustrate Chaos Theory, it does just that. It shows how a simple misinterpretation can have enormous, unforeseen effects on the principal players. Before I discuss the movie, consider an idea from Chaos Theory. It states that in a non-linear system, a small difference in initial conditions can produce effects that go far beyond their initial input. There are many different ways the theory has been described in math literature, but this is the most general definition. It's considered non-linear because, for a linear system, the output is proportional to the input in function. For example, take the function F(x)= 2x + 1. For every input, we get a predictable output. In a chaotic equation (which I won't show, less I digress from the topic of this essay), the opposite would happen. Inputs would beget extremely different outputs. I should mention that iteration is usually how these equations are developed, that is the output is taken as the input and the process is repeated. This is what leads to the chaotic effect. Remember this as we go on. Because I hope to show this movie, didn't intend to show chaotic progress, yet it does just that. That is, shows a chaotic development unfolding.

Now, let's turn to the film.

The tale begins with  Ozzie Cox (John Malkovich) a CIA analyst, who is becoming an alcoholic, being informed of a demotion. This scene is hilarious to watch. After this meeting, Cox is quite disaffected and takes the rash step of quitting. He explains this to his unfaithful British wife (Tilda Swinton) and begins writing a memoir of his years with the CIA. The Coen brothers hint but don't explicitly state that Cox is no big deal to the CIA. He's a minor agent, with little importance to this gigantic spy organization. In addition to the Cox character, there are a host of other players some of which know each and others don't. Let's list them:

         There is Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) one the funniest people in the movie. He is a treasury agent with a gun he always carries and is proud to let any, and everybody know. He's also an egotistical sex maniac philandering with Cox's wife, Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton). Add to this, being an egomaniac, he regularly runs to keep in shape. This activity leads him to suspect he's being watched.


         Katie Cox is the cruel, adulterous wife that works to Ozzie's detriment throughout the film.


         Then there is Linda Litsky (Frances Mcdormand), a physical therapist at a Washington, D.C., fitness clinic called: Hardbodies, Inc. She was also a police officer in Fargo. She is another egotist, neurotically concerned with her aging body. She wants to have several plastic surgeries to make herself more attractive to men. Linda is an addictive Internet love searcher. Every time she spoke I laughed. His demeanor itself evokes laughter from me.


         Harry's children's books writer wife, Sandy Pfarrer (Elizabeth Marvel), plays a minor part as the deceived wife, who is also deceiving her gun-toting husband Harry.


         A co-worker of Linda is Chad (Brad Pitt), a young, dumb bodybuilder coach, and the funniest jerk in the picture. This naive, avaricious kid and Linda Litsky team up to extort money from Ozzie with tragic consequences for Chad.



         Lastly, there is Ted (Richard Jenkins) the owner of Hardbodies, Inc., a shy, weak-willed man caught up in something he doesn't understand and that sadly he will be a victim of.

Now that we know the players let's get to the chaos part, I mean mathematical chaos. Chad is given a CD of Cox's memoir writing, by a Mexican janitor at Hardbodies. It contains Cox's reflections about his time as an agent with the agency. It is full of really useless information about his life with the CIA. This is our chaotic seed, every chaos equation has a seed, and this seed starts the process. Chad is intrigued and shows it to Ted, who doesn't want any part of it, but when Linda sees in it, a chance to get her plastic surgeries. The two devise a scheme of extortion with Ozzie Cox as the target. From this kernel, unimaginable consequences result.

Well the CIA is following everything. They have an agent tailing Harry the treasury agent and virtually everybody else. It is interesting to note here the directors portray, the CIA as a self-sustaining organization absorbed with its continuity and control of those in any way involved with it. The scenes in which a senior agent has interview sessions with his superior, direct us through the ever-growing complexity of the story.

Chad finds Cox's number,  and the duo set about a plan to extort money from him. This scene is so comical I had to stop the DVD and replay it a few times. Cox is infuriated but agrees to meet with Chad. The meeting doesn't go well. He gets Chad in his car and after not convincing him to return the CD, he punches and threatens him. It results in a crazy car chase sequence. Next, the two nitwit conspirators figure well maybe the Russians would be interested in this CD stuff. You see, that's our chaotic development is already leading to growing divergence. Next Harry's wife is off on a nationwide book tour of her new children's book. Harry, an irrepressible woman chaser has encounters with nameless women via the Internet. Well, Linda is an internet sex prowler too, and eventually, the two meet and make out. Now the next step in this chaotic process is set. Neither is aware that they have connections to Cox.

The plan to extort Cox didn't work and the Russians tell Chad and Linda that their material is useless. Linda wants her plastic surgeries and Chad is just a dope who wants to profit from the Cox connection. So, she suggests he break into Cox's house and steal some more stuff. This suggestion leads to the most comedic murder sequence I've ever watched. I won't go on describing this film in detail now, but end with a strong nod of approval. Hey, see this flick it will keep you rolling in your seat!

Small changes or aspects of any physical world configuration can have tremendous effects on succeeding events. Now, think of this film and its unfolding, didn't one little mistake the Mexican janitor finding a CD of Malkovich's lead to extraordinary results? I rest my case.

Oh, I could go on and bore you with things like how this reverberated throughout the film in a deterministic way, and how this shows that any chaotic system reaches a point of equilibrium, but I won't.