Screening Room

Screening Room

More than Just Frivolity: Joel and Ethan Coen Give Us the Antidote to the Happy Ending

By Frank Pittman

November/December 2008

Last year, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, long the darlings of a cult audience devoted to their quirky, over-the-top output over the past 25 years, finally received mainstream acceptance and a bouquet of Oscars for No Country for Old Men.

Characteristically, it was a dark, hard-to-classify movie about the spirit of evil hovering over the deserts of the Southwest, its relentless villain deciding the fate of the other characters with a mercurial coin flip. This year, the ever-surprising Coens have shifted directions once more, whipping up Burn after Reading, an assaultive souffle of a screwball comedy designed to regularly startle us and frustrate our need for the reassuring lightness and optimism we associate with traditional comic films.

In the opening shot of Burn after Reading, the camera zooms in from outer space and comes to rest on CIA headquarters in Washington D.C., setting the tone for a film that throughout treats its characters like insignificant ants, just the way they might appear from space. The Coens don't ask us to love these ants or find them particularly endearing—just to watch with bemused detachment at the spectacle of their absurd self-absorption and foolishness as most of them are unceremoniously and gratuitously killed off.

Why do we put up with the Coens and their macabre sense of fun and existential futility? Maybe it's because they're the therapeutic counterpoise to our Hollywood-created pipedreams…

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