Intelligence is relative: an essay on the narrative of Burn After Reading by Joel and Ethan Coen

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The tagline of the Coen Brothers’ 2008 film ‘Burn After Reading’ (if you couldn’t tell already) is: ‘intelligence is relative,’ and, like the tagline, so are the characters and narrative. Every time audiences are introduced to a new character, another character is added a facet. Each narrative strand strand that is presented adds depth to previous ones, and connotes the fundamental connotation of the film.

Taking this into account, the narrative cannot be confined into one subjective type; the Coen brothers continuously introduce audiences to new strands and layers to remind us of their tagline. Take, for instance, the introduction: audiences are immediately placed in a ‘top-secret’ style atmosphere, seeming very official and secretive, as signified through the low tracking shot of the footsteps in the sterile surroundings. Conversely, what audiences are met with are characters who cannot control their power, or lack o it. This is also where viewers are met with a clear typical convention of the Coen brothers: profanities, faux-clichés that make them more cliché, and the fact we are meeting a character at a heightened state of personal decline. It is clear from the offset the characters are the driving force behind the plot.

Additionally, the Coen brothers play on Grice’s Maxims, often blurring the boundaries between each one. Chad could be the maxim of quality, yet the CD makes him also become the opposite of this as he ties to blackmail Osbourne. Osbourne could be seen as the maxim of manner, as he is clearly unambiguous with what he feels about people, yet losing his job and his memoir being found leads him to a state of decline. This suggests the Coen brothers do not use the narrative to enhance the characters, but experiment with them and see how they change when their surroundings and ideals change.

Like with most of their films, for example ‘Fargo,’ ‘Burn After Reading’ can only loosely be applied to Todorov’s narrative structure. The introduction to the equilibrium coincides with the disruption, as the first part of the film is mainly an introduction into these multi-faceted characters rather than the narrative. However, once the narrative does begin, it is clear there is somewhat of a formula. From the first part of the film audiences know Osbourne and Katie’s marriage is unhappy; Katie is having an affair with Harry, and Linda wants plastic surgery but cannot afford it. These are crucial elements to the narrative as they become the driving force behind the characters once the disruption of the narrative begins.

The first time audiences see the link in the narrative strands is when the disruption of the narrative begins. This is when Linda and Chad discover Oswald’s CD, mistaking it for secret government files. The fact that it was these characters that discovered the CD suggests the ‘intelligence is relative’ theme throughout the narrative once again, as if this were any of the other characters (for example Harry) they’d see this was simply a memoir rather than confuse it for the confidential information Chad and Linda see it as; an important concept since if this were to happen to different characters it would completely change the narrative of the film.

The narrative also begins to develop at this point as Linda and Chad recognise the disc belongs to Osbourne, resulting in them trying to blackmail him and failing, so instead take the disc to the Russian Embassy. A second narrative strand is developed after as Harry and Linda meet through Internet dating. All characters are now connected, resulting in a rise in tension for audiences as this is most likely to have a detrimental effect.

The equilibrium is then restored through the fact Chad infiltrates Osbourne’s home but is trapped by Harry, who then kills him as he believes Chad is a spy – another link to the tagline. The scene where Harry shoots Chad is important as it encompasses the Coen brothers’ style – unexpected, unconventional and breaking the rules (at this point they might as well just have Grown Woman playing every time they walk into a room). There are no action codes or hints to what Harry is going to do to Chad — in fact, audiences believe Chad to be quite safe as the shots are consecutively through his point of view in the scene.

Finally, the complete reestablishment of the equilibrium is when the CIA agents comically disregard almost the whole film of what audiences had just sat through. They restore the narrative in a few sentences, and audiences find out what happened to the characters, for example Linda being paid off – a deal she initiated so she could pay for plastic surgery. This close of the film makes ‘Burn After Reading’ a circular narrative, as we begin where we started, and the goals most of the characters had at the offset of the film are achieved.

The Coen brothers’ idiosyncrasies are connoted through the binary oppositions they create with the narrative. From husband vs. wife, to masculinity vs. femininity and intellectuals vs. ‘morons,’ the themes are usually themes that have been explored in other texts, yet they have a post-modern elements due to the fact the Coen brothers often explore them in an unpredictable way, for example the husband and wife theme is reversed through the fact the archetypes of the characters are also reversed: Osbourne is, or at least becomes, the stay at home husband, whilst Katie drives the plot and marriage forward with her ruthless nature and affair with Harry.

The narrative proves to be post-modern once again as the ending is not created to satisfy audiences’ needs. The ending, which finished with viewers not seeing any of the characters but instead hearing about them, connotes the juxtaposition of semantic codes within the narrative vs. semantic codes that are relevant for the audience in real life. The Coen brothers have become self-conscious when creating the film at what audiences could interpret from it, and how they feel — they realise this film can’t provide audiences with something that will greatly impact their lives, but instead of pretending to, they remain authentic and dismiss everything viewers had just seen — for some this is frustrating, for others another comedic element.

‘Burn After Reading’ finishes with the theoretical bomb under the table going off, as, while there were many other points in the narrative in which it could be said to have gone off for Chad, Linda, Harry etc, this is the moment the bomb goes off for viewers, as we realise there was no point to the film; the majority of it is meaningless, and the Coen brothers reassure us that it is okay through the choral storytelling, when the head of the CIA closes the book on the inexplicable tale. Audiences realise that, as powerful and in control as Harry may have felt controlling his string of affairs, or Katie hiring the divorce lawyer, the people who had the power the whole time were the CIA. However, this is quickly juxtaposed with the aerial shot quickly zooming out of the location until we reach the sky, connoting the reason for the use of the tagline — once again, ‘intelligence is relative.’

(BTW: In case you were somehow wondering why this sounded like an essay for school (are you psychic??) that’s because it is [minus the Beyonce reference]!! I was too lazy to write up a separate review and, not to brag, this got full marks so….. waiting for my call from Matt Zoller Seitz to write for RogerEbert.com…)

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