I Know Who You Are, Fucker: Burn After Reading’s Absurd Mirror

John Malkovich as Osborne Cov in Burn After Reading (2008)
Focus Features

First of all, Osbourne Cox is a perfect name.

Osbourne Cox. Osbourne Cox. OSbourne COX.  

There really couldn’t be a better name for John Malkovich’s character in the Coen Brothers’ cynically unhinged Burn After Reading—the low-level ex-spy writing his *dramatic intonation* memoiahs after getting fired from Langley for general shittiness and alcoholism (and, in the course of the film, getting served with divorce papers by his wife for the same reasons). Osbourne Cox. Ozzie. The name reeks of limes squeezed dry, exclusive Princeton reunion dinners in wood-paneled rooms, silk bathrobes, anger-fueled spittle, sad yachts. Osbourne Cox, the man who couldn’t will himself into importance, the man who may actually be more technically intelligent than anyone else in the film (except, of course, his ice-cold pediatrician wife, played with child-hating precision by an arctic Tilda Swinton), but whose brain can’t lift him above his basest impulses and fears. The man whose superior attitude masks a deep inferiority complex, whose compulsive need to numb the pain of daily life with alcohol torpedoes his ambition, and whose desperate desire to see himself as part of a larger whole stems from an attempt to lend the futility of waking up every day some bigger-picture meaning. 

The man who, this time through the film, I understood on a deeply scary level.

Out of a job, continually moving cocktail hour up, attempting to “write” something “important” in a haze of gin and soda water, bemoaning the LEAGUE of MORONS surrounding him—I found myself feeling uncomfortably close to the seemingly absurd caricature that one wants Osbourne to be. His world has slowly closed in around him. He goes from a stable (if not elite) position at work to a somewhat disgraced position at home to an unhappy exile in a somewhat cluttered yacht cabin with a small TV. His clothes go from a suit to a bathrobe—from a bowtie to an old, stained t-shirt and boxers. His disgrace, a fall-from-not-really-ever-actually-grace that may have been easy to laugh at in 2008, seems unsettlingly relatable now—at least it does to me, sitting here on my couch in an old tank top, a mostly-blank Word document minimized on my screen, a dead fly on the dining room table, no work emails to check since there’s no longer work. I put my computer on the needs-to-be-swept floor and do an exercise video. I’m BACK, you FUCKERS, I’m BACK, I think, moving my arms, marching my legs.

What I wouldn’t give for an axe.  

* 

In high school, my friends and I used to thinly disguise mean comments about each other—my academic perfectionism that once resulted in a beautiful, sunny weekend spent inside drawing a map of Australia; May’s inability to drive; Ryan’s failed attempt to date me and his subsequent sad phone calls to my mother—as jokes and then make terrible faces: “It’s funny because it’s TRUUUUUEEEEEE,” we’d mug. We lived in the thin line between laughing and crying. Now, of course, I’m aware that the thin line between laughing and crying is the only real laughing there is. I don’t ever laugh at a joke unless I’m also unsure if I might actually burst into tears from self-recognition. I want comedy that hits the absurd button so hard it loops back around into reality, kicking my ass with its fucking mirror-to-nature insight hidden beneath seemingly improbable situations. I want comedy that swings big and takes some of society down with it when it crashes. I want comedy that hurts me when I think about it later. I want a farce—an angry, ridiculous, idiotic failure whose actors chew the scenery up and reveal the whole damn shebang to be a façade. 

* 

Of the many quotable films I’ve digested in my life, I find none quite as enjoyably quotable as Burn After Reading. Say the name of the film and I can instantly call up the exact intonations of the lines in my head. I can hear Richard Jenkins’ resigned, quiet “I’m not here representing Hardbodies.” I can see Brad Pitt squinting his eyes, saying in a faux ponderous voice, “Perhaps. But appearances…can be…deceptive.” I can call up John Malkovich, thrusting his arms out vigorously from his shoulders, yelling, “THIS—is a CRUCIFIXION! THIS is POLITICAL!” I can imagine the film reading as amusing on paper, but in the mouths of its flawless cast, the idiotic lines soar. 

There’s no question that one of the greatest strengths of Burn After Reading is the casting. The film works so well, in large part, because the actors are playing twisted bizarro versions of themselves. (The Coen brothers wrote the roles specifically for each actor, and clearly did so taking the actors’ public personalities—and the public’s assumption about their personalities—into account.) Brad Pitt takes on the role of the sublimely vacuous gym trainer (Chad), a good-natured dude with very little happening in the attic; George Clooney portrays the shallow, sex-obsessed neurotic looking for little in the way of long-term partnership other than a good location for neighborhood runs (Harry Pfarrer); Frances McDormand parodies the opposite of her well-known stance against plastic surgery as an appearance-focused woman (Linda Litzke) in pursuit of the money for multiple unnecessary procedures; Richard Jenkins gives a heartbreaking performance as the man you see around all the time but never really think about enough to learn his last name (he is literally credited as “Ted,” nothing more); John Malkovich owns the self-important dramatics of the arrogant blowhard (Osbourne). It works the way poorly-molded action figures (or particularly cryptic statues) work—close enough to evoke resemblance, far enough away to make you laugh.

If you haven’t seen the film, this might be where you’re wondering what the plot is. Basically, these five characters—plus Tilda Swinton’s chilly Katie Cox, Osbourne’s controlling soon-to-be ex-wife—find themselves interlocked in a meaningless intrigue kicked off by a series of classical comedy-of-errors misunderstandings and sexual cross-purposes worthy of Shakespeare’s most ridiculous (and yet also disturbingly dark) comedies. Katie is having an affair with Harry, Harry is having an affair with Linda, Ted is still hoping Linda will notice him someday, and in the midst of these largely meaningless physical attachments, Osbourne’s finances and memoirs are mistaken for high-level intelligence files by Chad and Linda, who promptly take the files to the Russian embassy hoping to raise money for Linda’s plastic surgeries.

Few make it out unscathed, fewer alive. The film’s perfect and startling ending sees a bemused and unnamed CIA supervisor (the incomparably empathy-less J.K. Simmons) give up on making sense of anything that just unfolded, cover up the bodies, and utter a series of last lines that seemed chilling to me in 2008 and toss even more terror down my spine in 2020:

CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer?

CIA Officer: I don’t know, sir.

CIA Superior: I don’t fuckin’ know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.

CIA Officer: Yes, sir.

CIA Superior: I’m fucked if I know what we did.

CIA Officer: Yes, sir, it’s, uh, hard to say

CIA Superior: Jesus Fucking Christ.

I guess we learned not to do it again. I’m fucked if I know what we did.

That’s for fucking sure.

*

Perhaps Burn After Reading felt wrong to some viewers, in those early Obama years—perhaps it felt too pessimistic, too nihilistic, too sure that bureaucracy could never lead to hope, only to…more bureaucracy. Perhaps too many Americans (too many white Americans, for sure) were clutching to straws of hope that they had simply conjured up in their heads to laugh at a film exposing the absurd ignorance of believing that anyone knows what the hell is going on. David Denby, in The New Yorker, called the farce plot “so bleak and unfunny that it freezes your responses after about 45 minutes” and even said that it was “not a comedy sparked by bright, funny lines.” Um, okay. (You think that’s a Schwinn?!) Todd McCarthy slammed the film in Variety for the “artificially augmented vulgarities in the dialogue,” the “immature” script, for being “too fundamentally silly,” and for lacking “the grounding of a serious substructure.” Little did he know how seriously many people take the pursuit of solipsistic idiocy.

Much has since been written about the way that Burn After Reading feels eerily prescient now when it comes to the Russia plot (today, of course, instead of Osbourne Cox we have stupid Watergate). One could call this an Occam’s razor coincidence—the Russians may have felt passé in 2008, but everything that goes around comes around. If we’re going to make shoulder pads in blazers come back, of course we’re going to find ourselves dealing with the Russians again. What did we expect? But there are a few things going on in Burn After Reading besides the Russia plot that make it sing in a way you might not have felt the first time. In 2020, the film feels both more ridiculous and more painful than when it first came out—more capable of breaking down your defenses against laughter and more likely to keep you up at night.

First, there’s the paranoia. Has there ever been a year when paranoia felt more reasonable? My current levels of paranoia (high!) fit comfortably in with the paranoia of the Coen Brothers’ characters. They look around uneasily in restaurants, they shoot glances at people on park benches across from them. When someone doesn’t show up for work, it’s gotta mean they’re dead. The Coen Brothers shoot the movie through paranoid lenses. Cameras watching you on your computer, peering at you through closet slats. Dialogue about how, with cell phone technology, your location will be accessible to anyone who wants it at any time. The camera parked across the street like a car that’s sat there, suspiciously, since you came home. The near-parody of the famous Goodfellas image of a sweating Ray Liotta fruitlessly trying to escape the law as Linda peers out her car windshield, recognizing government helicopters overhead.

Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading (2008) Ray Liotta in Goodfellas (1990)

The ironic thing, of course, is that the characters’ paranoia—which could easily be dismissed as self-centered people wanting to believe they’re embroiled in something important—proves warranted. The government is following you. They are watching you. Those people in the restaurant do want to serve you divorce papers. Oh, and yes, your colleague is dead. This feeling—this “actually, it’s worse than you thought!” feeling—well, I don’t need to tell you about it, do I? You’re living it, too.

And this, of course, is where the comedy could veer into tragedy. Does it matter how stupid the plot is if people die? Does it matter if everything is driven by superficial idiocy and sexual compulsion if an unmarked body ends up burned, a kind man trying to help out a colleague ends up felled in the streets, a marriage between two equally superficial and unfaithful people ends up shattered, a diligently-constructed sex machine ends up torn to shreds, unused, in a dark Georgetown basement? Indeed, you could paint a painful portrait of particularly relevant claustrophobia with these characters, desperate to escape their circumstances, willing to turn to any tiny pinprick of light, no matter how faint.

Too many of us, as I’ve felt, have turned into Osbournes these last seven months, playing at writing, punctuating word count checks with a timely cocktail, spinning out at home with no apparent larger purpose, pissing off the people who live with us until they roll their eyes at the sound of our footsteps in the hallway.

If that’s not you, there’s Ted, no-last-name Ted, a man who has traded God for an elliptical machine, whose life has not turned out as planned but who is, nevertheless, committed to the ethos of Hardbodies. It’s not an important place to work, sure, but he’s going to make sure it’s the best gym it can be. This is all he has. He needs cleanliness, timeliness, commitment. He still has hope that Linda will notice him. But he’s resigned. He has decided that excelling at his middling position will be enough, has to be enough to get him through. Maybe this is you.

Or there’s Harry, whose only escapes from the bars of his world are sex and exercise. Disconnected from his job as a U.S. Marshal and distant from his successful children’s-book-author wife, seemingly comforted by nothing but physical exertion, Harry lies, avoids emotional entanglement, laughs too loudly, invents food allergies he may or may not have, and gets in bed with any woman who will let him, not expecting anything more than a quick release of the tension of living. I know a whole lot of Harries who have Pelotons now. And new sheets.

George Clooney in Burn After Reading (2008)

Or maybe you’re Linda, who longs for a superficial fix to a mess of a life. Who wants to believe that firmer breasts and thinner upper arms will change the fact that she’s stuck in a dead-end job, getting older, and still sleeping in a small apartment alone. Linda, insomniac, creeping out of bed in the night to confirm her suspicions—of course the man who sat next to her at the movie theater has a wife, of course she’s asked him to buy Cheerios at the store. Of course he’s fleeing his own invisible cage.

Or you could be Katie Cox, retreating into bitter cold, into detached, angry commands. If people around her would just do what she’s asking, all of this would be more tolerable. Life sucks. There’s no reason to pretend otherwise. Shut up, put the car in gear, criticize the person chopping carrots for your salad. This isn’t enjoyable so let’s drop the pretense that it could be, shall we?

Feeling uncomfortably seen yet?

* 

But, like any good farce, Burn After Reading pulls back from pathos, giving you dark laughter and an angry smirk instead of a tearful embrace. The final shots of the characters are largely too ridiculous to evoke empathy—these are people who deserve their fates (except, perhaps, Ted), and the Coen Brothers take joy in giving them what they deserve. Only one death occurs on-screen; everything else, true to the bureaucratic absurdity of it all, is summarized dryly by a sober but uncomprehending Palmer (David Rasche), in a litany of tragic events that never should have happened, and never would have had the key players not been searching so hard for evidence that they were a part of something that mattered.

The on-screen death, of course, is Chad’s, and it’s one of the best deaths ever filmed in a movie. Chad has broken into the Coxes’ house in search of more “intelligence” to hand the Russians, wearing a suit Linda has convinced him to be necessary, blissfully unaware of the tangled web he’s climbing into, cheering himself up with a little dance in the car before heading in. He sees Katie leave with Harry, thinks he’s in the clear—but of course, Katie drops Harry off after five miles, ensuring that he can get his signature post-coital run in. Cue the most suspenseful sequence ever filmed between two completely shallow and clueless characters. As Chad hides in the closet—a veritable Jamie Curtis-in-Halloween except he’s…chewing gum—Harry showers, sings to himself, and then opens the closet door. There’s a fraction of a second where Chad, seeing no other option, offers a giant, dumb smile—an image that flashes across your brain as quickly as the demonic face in The Exorcist—but before anyone can register what’s happening, Harry has shot him point-blank in the head. It’s shockingly funny, thanks to Pitt’s performance and the film’s airtight editing. That split-second naive grin, followed so quickly by the explosion of Harry’s “never discharged in 20 years of service” weapon—the blood splatter streaking across the back of the closet—it’s an indelible moment, one using the trappings of absurd comedy to lean into universal futility.

At the end of the film, the only character to emerge with any sort of victory is Linda Litzke. Bereaved Linda Litzke, who has lost her best friend to sudden death, her faithful employer to…sudden death, and her new lover to Venezuela, where there’s no American extradition. Shallow Linda Litzke, whose attempt at having agency in her life—at seizing the day—has created a wake of meaningless loss. But it wasn’t for nothing. No. Linda’s going to get those surgeries, courtesy of a baffled CIA. Someone’s going to walk out of this with something they wanted, goddammit.

*

Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading

Life right now, for most of us, consists of weeks when we tell ourselves we’re fine and weeks when we feel like we can’t do it anymore. Days when we find a way to smile despite the social, economic, and ecological structures crumbling around us, and days when we struggle to get out of bed and shower, to face the neverending day. I had one of those days recently, lying in my bedroom in the dark at 6 pm, watching the setting sunlight—tinged slightly with smoke—coming in through the window. I just don’t think I can keep doing this, I thought.

And what got me out of bed was not my childrens’ faces, or the need for dinner, or the dog wanting a walk. It was thinking of John Malkovich’s face, distorted with rage, screaming “I KNOW WHO YOU ARE, FUCKERRR!” at a disheveled, nose-punched Brad Pitt. It was realizing that I was playing into one of the fatal flaws of the Coen Brothers’ grimly blind characters: believing myself and my own burden to be important enough to generate pity for.

You’re not that cool, I remind myself. Your personal problems are not that interesting or unique. You’re a small absurd accident born into a slightly larger absurd accident. You are an awkward, fleshy body. Stop taking yourself so SERIOUSLY. As pep talks go, it’s not a very positive one. But it works.

I can hear my neighbor building something with a buzzsaw, shaving something down, polishing it. I wonder what he’s making, and for who, and how stupid it is that we use our brains to make shit like sex swings or Star Trek figures. Then again, maybe Clooney’s Harry had the right idea. Stupid things make us happy, and happiness is fleeting, right? Grab it while you can. Forge it yourself if you have to. Take those trips to Home Depot. Order that specialty dildo. And yes, Harry was on to something—but at the end of the day, if I could choose to be anyone in this film, it would be Chad. Happy, full of smoothies and pop music, knowledgeable about bikes. He’s a dummy, for sure, but he is so filled with joy he dances on the treadmill! He dies a violent death, yes, but he dies smiling! That idiotic, perfect smile, completely unaware of what’s about to hit him. God, if only I could die a death like that.

So, I don’t know, maybe it’s okay to embrace the dumb pleasures amidst the absurdity. After all, if your body washes up in the bay tomorrow, it’s unclear who will care. 

Jesus Fucking Christ. I have to get out of bed.

If I leave now, I might have time to get a run in.