The Coens have spent their careers perfecting the anti-“Wrong Man” narrative. Whereas Hitchcock heightened suspense and audience-character identification by situating hapless, ordinary protagonists within extraordinary situations they seemingly have no control over, the Coens get off on watching their characters purposely enter into grandiose confrontations and violent circumstances. Once in over the heads, they dig deeper and deeper into what become their own graves. So recurrent is this template for the Coens, spread so evenly across genres from screwball comedy to nihilistic thriller (the spirit of willful intrusion, fueled by want, infects everyone from Nicolas Cage’s hillbilly wannabe dad in Raising Arizona to William H. Macy’s cash-strapped car salesman in Fargo to Billy Bob Thornton’s tobacco-ringed barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There, to of course, the ultimate passive transgressor, the Big Lebowski himself), that it’s amazing their films haven’t yet grown to feel entirely like retreads. Though we’re largely wedded to the points of view of all the above characters, the Coens keep us on the outside. This is why the major complaint Coen detractors have had for decades now is that they’re judging or mocking their own creations. Aside from the fact that within their particular brand of social satire (not far off from that of Kubrick’s, in which the terror of the modern world is often inextricable from its idiocies) broad caricatures are the order of the day, that simple criticism denies the occasional necessity of objectification. When protagonists are objectified, it makes for viewing that’s calculatedly discomfiting, in which easy audience identification is challenged, even sometimes squandered, in favor of, well, a broader view.
It’s easy to mark Joel and Ethan Coen as misanthropes; it’s difficult (and far more instructive) to try and find reflections of oneself in their films. In Burn After Reading, which surely will be called “heartless,” “wise-ass,” and “self-consciously clever” for the next few months before eventually being recouped, Hudsucker and Lebowski-style, as an endlessly rewatched, frivolous Coen fave, the filmmakers go as wide and toothy as ever, yet this time there’s no period or regional remoteness to fall back on. Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky’s review of Burn After Reading.