I didn’t think the Coen brothers could top No Country For Old Men, their Oscar-winning masterpiece (which I wrote about here). But A Serious Man comes awfully close. This is a film unlike anything the Coens have ever done, and yet it fits perfectly into their oeuvre. It’s a film about God, man, and the peculiar way that the two relate. And it’s a film that will haunt and provoke you far after you leave the theater.
The Coen Brothers new film, Burn After Reading, suffers from the fact that it followed No Country for Old Men, last year’s best picture Oscar winner. By comparison, Reading looks a tad lightweight—a goofy black comedy without the obvious “prestige” elegance of No Country. But I think that Reading is a very good, concise, underrated film. And perhaps the Coen’s most timely movie ever.
On a filmmaking level, you have to appreciate the razor-sharp economy with which the Coens make films. In No Country, they showed just how evocative a film can be when its most crucial, waited-for moments are only implied (as in, the moment when Javier Bardem lifts up his shoe at the end of the film). In Reading, they do the same thing. The Coens use an effective narrative device—C.I.A. officials being “briefed”—to comically tell us how the most horrendously violent scenes unfold. It is often said that good filmmakers “show” rather than “tell” a scene, but in the case of violence, I think that the Coens have found a way to effectively render it in our minds without always showing it. Certainly the endings of Reading and No Country are effective in this way.
But I also appreciated Reading for other things: its great cast (Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins are especially fun), for one thing, but also its strange, quirky ability to capture the zeitgeist of America (well, Washington) in 2008.
The film has a resigned feeling to it—an almost nihilistic sense that everyone is stupid, selfish, and self-destructive. It’s a dark, cynical film, but it captures a familiar weariness that I think rings more true than ever today—in these days when Washington seems more inept than ever, more self-serving, and more prone to make a problem worse by trying to “solve” it in a quick and easy manner.
Burn After Reading never directly addresses one political party or another, and certainly it may be interpreted as a critique of the 8-year-long train wreck that has been the Bush years, but I see it more as a commentary on Washington D.C. in general, on bureaucracy, on the failed systems of power and secrecy and cover-ups that have made this generation of young Americans the most cynical ever about politics.
No Country felt timely as well, but not in a way that felt particularly American. Reading feels completely and utterly about America—about big, dumb, angry, short-tempered Americans who are scared about the future, paranoid about the present, dubious about anyone or anything “official,” and perpetually engaged in a downward spiral/comedy of errors.
At a time like this—when faith in America is dropping with the stocks, when many of us are losing all interest in the election and just wish it would end—perhaps Burn After Reading is not the best film for us. But then again, maybe it’s exactly the film we need.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film, No Country For Old Men, is not an easy film to watch. It is desperately nihilistic and almost apocalyptic, in the way that Cormac McCarthy is so apt at capturing. It’s an anachronistic Texas western in look and mood—with great action scenes, shootouts, and dead desert imagery. But it is a world-weary, existential western as well: somewhere between Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma.