Reading ‘Burn After Reading’ as a Shakespeare tragedy

Where men are spurred on by their more naughty counterparts played by Frances McDormand, and the similarities do not stop there.

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By Anna Swanson · Published on December 25, 2021

Hamlet… Othello… Chad…

There are some instantly recognizable tragic characters, and there are others that take longer to cement their status in the genre. But when you see a good tragic hero, whether they are honored as such or not, you can recognize them.

With the arrival of Joel Coen‘s bid for William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the classic tale is once again at the forefront of popular fantasy. Yes, The tragedy of Macbeth, what features Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the iconic cunning couple, McDormand and Coen wait a long time, as our own Luke Hicks has noticed.

This makes it even more tempting to revisit the tragedies, comedies and tragicomedies that populate the Coen brothers’ filmography. And while there are many excellent and celebrated films in their oeuvre, there is a certain underrated gem from 2008 that is perhaps the greatest forerunner of a Shakespeare adaptation: Burn after reading.

Of course, the film does not fit within the standard parameters of a tragedy. First, it’s a black comedy that laughs out loud. But with Coens’ signature gloomy prospects, there is more than enough of a damper to prevent this from becoming a unique tumult. More important, Burn after reading shares many thematic similarities Macbeth.

As a refresh, Macbeth deals with an ambitious Scottish general who receives a prophecy that he will become king. Together with his conspiratorial wife, the two decide that fate is not enough – they have to act if they want the crown. When Macbeth assassinates the king and takes the throne, he is struck with guilt and Lady Macbeth goes mad. With success with a high price, the piece revolves around the notion that there is a price to pay for ambitions and that past deeds will always catch up with you.

To transfer themes of ambition and paranoia from the Scottish Medieval Highlands to the present day, Washington DC is a really fitting place. Of course, Burn after reading, which follows a former CIA analyst blackmailed by two out of their in-depth gym staff, is not an adaptation of Bard’s work. But boy, does it share some similarities.

In the 2008 film, Frances McDormand is less of a cunning and crippling queen and more of a spinster looking for a break from her troublesome dating life. As a DC gymnast, McDormand’s Linda is surrounded by Washington’s elite. One day her foolish colleague Chad (Brad Pitt) falls over a disk with Osbourne Cox’s memories (John Malkovich), a confused former CIA employee. They believe they contain important government information and they are making a plan to swap the disk for enough money to fund Linda’s plastic surgery goals.

Meanwhile, Osbourne’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with the paranoid American Marshal Harry (George Clooney). As Harry starts a random sling with Linda, the threads begin to overlap, deception is revealed, and deadly consequences unfold.

Although Linda may look modest, she has revealed to be more of a planner than she seems. She drags the ignorant Chad into her plot and seriously underestimates both the ultimate value of their information and their ability to go toe-to-toe with Osbourne. Like Macbeth, Chad is not innocent in the whole affair, but it is his smarter female counterpart who operates behind the scenes with the right plan. Encouraged by Linda’s drive, Chad becomes the primary contact for Osbourne and acts as the face of the operation.

Of course, Linda and Chad in the Washington world are the only characters willing to break morale to serve their own selfish desires and hopes of success. Katie is as cold as … well, as one would expect from Swinton, and she’s ready to use the excuse that Osbourne is leaving the CIA to separate from him and continue a relationship with Harry. Harry is a womanizer who is routinely unfaithful to his wife and has an unpredictable trigger finger. And Osbourne is a heartless heavy drinker with shockingly brutal abilities.

Needless to say, ethics is not the crucial trait of any of these characters. With the exception of Richard Jenkins‘Ted, a colleague at the gym who carries a torch for Linda and is elevated above the cold-blooded calculations from those around him. He does not want to be drawn into any of it except when he is trying to save Linda from her vanity and ambition. And of course, things do not end well for the only innocent character in the pack.

Ted’s death at the hands of Osbourne fits into a classic tragic narrative trope in which his attempt to help Linda is what curses him in the end. But how many tragedies end in pity and heartache, Burn after reading turns the genre in a new direction with its blunt conclusion.

Instead of a proper ending, the film is cut to a final CIA briefing, where the remaining narrative threads are swept into a file on the desk by a superior analyst played by JK Simmons. There is not even time to mourn the lost or fully trace what has happened. At first, or even second or third viewing of the film, it can be disturbing to feel that the action has just begun and then realize that the film is already over.

But of course the great purpose here is that none of this has any purpose. All threads can be wrapped in a quick debriefing because it has no consequences. As Simmons’ analyst notes, the only thing one has learned is not to do it again, even when no one can formulate what it is that happened at all. Everything will be swept under the rug in service of the larger systems at stake, and any lessons will be neglected.

The tragedy here is so abysmal that the only option is to laugh at it all. Although comedy is not the result of Macbeth, both texts have a rather gloomy view of inevitable destruction. But unlike the classic tale, things unfold quite differently for Lady Macbeth and Linda. The latter comes from there with plastic surgery funded by the CIA to keep her quiet. Her goals are met. And we are left to wonder if the tragedy is that she sold out those who took care of her for a facelift, or that she will never know the extent of her own heartlessness.

If Macbeth is a text about the doom that comes when action is paired with ruthless ambition, Burn after reading is a text that both action and passivity are irrelevant when caught in a system where nothing really matters. It’s a lesson in the inability to learn – a testament to the emptiness of it all. A true tale told by an idiot who means nothing.

Related topics: Frances McDormand, Joel Coen, Shakespeare

Anna Swanson is a senior contributor who comes from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma movie.

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