Hamlet… Othello… Chad…
There are some instantly recognizable tragic figures, and there are others that take more time to cement their status in the genre. But when you see a good tragic hero, whether they are venerated as such or not, you can recognize them.
With the arrival of Joel Coen‘s take on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the classic tale is once again at the forefront of popular imagination. Indeed, The Tragedy of Macbeth, which features Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the iconically cunning couple, is a long time coming for McDormand and Coen, as noted by our own Luke Hicks.
This makes it all the more tempting to revisit the tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies that populate the Coen Brothers’ filmography. And while there are many outstanding and celebrated films in their oeuvre, there’s a certain underrated gem from 2008 that is perhaps the biggest precursor to a Shakespeare adaptation: Burn After Reading.
Sure, the film doesn’t fit within the standard parameters of a tragedy. For one thing, it’s a laugh-out-loud black comedy. But with the Coens’ signature bleak outlook, there’s more than enough of a damper to keep this from being a clear-cut romp. More importantly, Burn After Reading shares many thematic similarities with Macbeth.
As a refresher, Macbeth concerns an ambitious Scottish general who receives a prophecy that he shall become king. With his conspiring wife, the two decide that fate isn’t enough — they have to act if they want the crown. When Macbeth murders the king and takes the throne, he is wracked by guilt, and Lady Macbeth is driven mad. With success coming at a steep cost, the play revolves around the notion that there’s a price to pay for ambition and that past deeds will always catch up with you.
To transpose themes of ambition and paranoia from the Medieval Scottish highlands to the present day, Washington DC makes one hell of a fitting locale. Of course, Burn After Reading, which follows an ex-CIA analyst blackmailed by two out of their depth gym employees, is not an adaptation of the Bard’s work. But boy, does it share some similarities.
In the 2008 film, Frances McDormand is less of a cunning and cutthroat queen and more of a spinster looking for a break from her humdrum dating life. As a DC gym employee, McDormand’s Linda is surrounded by Washington’s elite. One day her dimwitted coworker Chad (Brad Pitt) stumbles upon a disk containing the memoirs of Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a jilted former CIA employee. Believing them to contain important government information, the two hatch a plan to trade over the floppy for enough cash to fund Linda’s plastic surgery goals.
Meanwhile, Osbourne’s wife’s Katie (Tilda Swinton) is carrying on an affair with paranoid US Marshal Harry (George Clooney). When Harry starts up a coincidental fling with Linda, the threads begin to overlap, deceptions are revealed, and deadly consequences unfold.
While Linda may look unassuming, she’s revealed to be more of a schemer than she appears. She pulls clueless Chad into her plot, severely underestimating both the ultimate value of their information and their ability to go toe-to-toe with Osbourne. Much like Macbeth, Chad isn’t innocent in the whole affair, but it’s his smarter female counterpart that operates behind the scenes with the real plan. Spurred by Linda’s drive, Chad becomes the primary contact for Osbourne and serves as the face of the operation.
Of course, in the world of Washington, Linda and Chad are the only characters willing to skirt morality to serve their own selfish desires and aspirations for success. Katie is as cold as… well, as one would expect from Swinton, and she’s ready to use the excuse of Osbourne leaving the CIA to divorce him and continue a relationship with Harry. Harry is a womanizer who routinely cheats on his wife and has an unpredictable trigger finger. And Osbourne is a heartless heavy-drinker with shockingly brutal capabilities.
Needless to say, ethics are not the defining trait for any of these characters. Except for Richard Jenkins‘ Ted, a fellow gym employee who carries a torch for Linda and is above the cold-blooded calculations of those around him. He doesn’t want to be dragged into any of it, except when trying to save Linda from her vanity and ambition. And naturally, things don’t exactly end well for the only innocent character in the bunch.
Ted’s demise at the hands of Osbourne fits into a classically tragic narrative trope where his attempt to help Linda is what damns him in the end. But whereas many tragedies end with commiseration and heartache, Burn After Reading spins the genre in a new direction with its blunt conclusion.
In place of a proper denouement, the film cuts to a final CIA briefing where the remaining narrative threads are swept into a file on the desk of a superior analyst played by JK Simmons. There’s no time even to mourn those lost or fully track what has transpired. On first, or even second or third viewings of the film, it can be unsettling to feel like the action has just gotten started and then realize the film has already ended.
But of course, the great purpose here is that none of this has any purpose. All the threads can be wrapped up in a quick debriefing because there will be no consequences. As Simmons’ analyst remarks, the only thing learned is not to do it again, even when no one can articulate what it is that even happened. Everything will be swept under the rug in service of the larger systems at play, and any lessons will be disregarded.
The tragedy here is so abysmal that the only option is to laugh at all of it. Though comedy isn’t the outcome of Macbeth, both texts have a rather bleak outlook on inevitable ruination. But in contrast to the classic tale, things unfold rather differently for Lady Macbeth and Linda. The latter comes away with plastic surgery financed by the CIA to keep her quiet. Her goal is fulfilled. And we’re left to wonder if the tragedy is that she sold out those who cared for her for a facelift or that she’ll never know the extent of her own heartlessness.
If Macbeth is a text about the downfall that comes when action is paired with ruthless ambition, Burn After Reading is a text about both action and inaction being irrelevant when caught in a system where nothing really matters. It’s a lesson in the inability to learn—a testament to the vacuousness of it all. A true tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.