I saw Burn After Reading a few weeks ago, but I hadn’t planned on writing about it. It’s a funny, smart, film, but pretty straightforward. Or so I thought, until I read some reviews. The New Yorker and Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian lead the field, I think, with their surprising failures to get the film, but it’s amusing that the widespread critical criticism of Burn After Reading seems to be the same as the popular criticism of No Country for Old Men: that the film doesn’t have a proper ending.
The criticism is wrong in both cases, of course; but Burn After Reading is so consistently and explicitly critical of narrative closure that it’s baffling that these reviewers haven’t noticed that the film argues its own defense against their criticisms. The film is built around the absence of a plot: all the characters think that there is a hidden logic, to which they therefore adapt their actions, but the secret, of course, is that there is no secret. Hence the particularly funny scene between Brad Pitt and John Malkovich, in which each expects the other to know what they’re doing and fill in the missing half of the conversation; Malkovitch’s character of course cottons on first and gets increasingly pissed off, as does Pitt’s, when he finally notices.
However, it’s the ending of the film that makes this more than just an excuse for humorous misunderstandings. What is, I think, genuinely clever about the film is the way in which, finally, the lack of a hidden plot makes no difference. It’s funny watching the characters stumble through what they think is the logic of a spy story, but what really matters isn’t the strategies, clever or stupid, of the players in the spy game, but the blind force of the state. The marshal’s weapon is finally discharged, the CIA agent whacks someone with an ax, and the CIA’s clean-up squad comes in to pick up the pieces.