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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Burn After Reading

    When my brother asked me if I wanted to go catch a movie last Saturday afternoon, I glanced at the pile of homework on my desk, grabbed a $20 bill and headed out the door without looking back. I don’t get to the movie theatre as often as I like, but I figured that a flick with both George Clooney and Brad Pitt had to be worth seeing, even at 10 bucks a ticket — plus one for my girlfriend. I figured it was going to be an ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ throwback, with Clooney and Pitt in their normal handsome, suave, action hero roles. But it wasn’t until the credits started rolling after sitting in a dark theatre for an hour and a half did I realize that this was a Coen Brothers movie. Suddenly it made sense that the first time Pitt and Clooney shared the screen, Pitt’s character would be lying in a pool of his own blood that a twitchy, neurotic Clooney caused. The Coen Brothers, famous for award-winning movies — such as ‘Fargo,’ ‘The Big Lebowski,’ and ‘O Brother, Where Are Thou?’ — are known for the creation of what I like to call ‘What the f–k?’ films; the kind of movies that leave you pinned to your seat long after it’s over just trying to make sense of the spectacle that you just witnessed. The best way I can explain it is through the ‘Butterfly Effect’ — an idea from chaos theory that says small variations in an initial event have a compounded effect that leads to a large variation in the long term behavior of a system. In ‘Burn After Reading,’ the small things, like making a poor decision based on a fleeting emotion or accidentally leaving a compact disc in the locker room at your gym, goes almost unnoticed by the characters who have little foresight into their own lives. For the viewers, however, these small things are glaringly obvious because we are able to witness events in the lives of some of the other characters. For example, even though Frances McDormand’s and Brad Pitt’s characters are driven by greed and blinded by inexperience, they probably had some idea of the possible consequences of trying to blackmail a CIA analyst, played by John Malkovich. Trying to blackmail a recently fired, alcoholic CIA analyst whose wife is cheating on him, with worthless documents, however, might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. But they didn’t know about, and therefore didn’t consider, these details. There is a scene at the end of the movie in which J.K. Simmons, playing a senior CIA official, is hearing a secondhand report of the nonsensical events that transpire during the movie. It’s not a terribly important part, but the confusion that occurs is amusing because it echoes the confusion of the audience with what they just saw. ‘What did we learn from this?’, Simmons asks, trying to find some sense in a chain of events that he doesn’t understand. I don’t know if anyone else in the audience learned anything, but I learned to appreciate the enormity of what we consider small actions. Not having the privilege of an outsider’s perspective, like in a movie, we can’t fully appreciate how the small things we do might affect the lives of people in large ways. In a Coen Brothers movie, this could mean an innocent person gets an ax to the head by a crazed man or it could mean a lady gets free plastic surgery courtesy of the CIA. In real life, however, it could mean someone less fortunate improves their lot in life because of an act of kindness or a small donation. Because you never really know where others have been, where they’re going or how your actions can affect their path, it’s important to consider how we interact with others. A kind word at the right time, instead of a rude gesture, can make all the difference in another’s life. If that life happens to be spiraling out of control, you don’t want to be the greedy one who pushes it into the deep end. For anyone looking for a movie with a lot of meaningless sex and explosions, you probably shouldn’t bother with this movie. But if you’re looking for a movie with a hidden message, a movie that will confound, amuse, horrify, please and madden you from one moment to the next — a movie surprisingly realistic yet unrealistic at the same time — then I recommend this one.

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