I recently watched the Coen Brother’s movie, “Burn after Reading” and was surprised to find out just how funny and quirky people thought this movie was. I did not. I got so depressed after watching the movie that I had to immediately walk to the nearest ice-cream parlor with my wife and buy us a couple scoops. I swore at the time, in fact, that it was the worst movie I’d ever seen. I’m not so sure about that judgment any longer. Here’s why.
(Semi-spoiler alert.) The movie started out as a series of semi-separate, boring stories that, out of nowhere, converge into a chaotic mess of (quirky) murder and mayhem. Amidst this mayhem, literally no one is in control and no one can take control. The CIA operatives in the movie don’t even know what to take from the chaos. Accordingly, a bunch of people die and no one has much to say about why.
I soon realized, however, that the reason the movie depressed me so much was because this “phenomenon” is far closer to real life and how we experience life than it’s often comfortable to admit. Not that people are constantly dying violent deaths in my world, but there are certainly places where this threat is very real even. More importantly, the movie drew out through its somewhat lighthearted approach to this chaos the blithely uncaring nature and meaninglessness of life itself when viewed in this manner. The Coen Brothers, in other words, would really make great French existentialists!
Having given the movie a couple days to sink in, what it has solidified in my mind is something very important: that, whether they mean to be or not, the Coen Brothers are two of the greatest modern interpreters of sin that I can think of. The reason I say this is because they constantly show, it seems, in each movie that they make that the conditions of the world are such that what I want to call “sin” is inevitable, built into our being, and lightheartedly uncaring about our involvement with it. Sin, in this regard, is not found in individual acts—though it is there, too—but in the very conditions of the world that allow us to act or force us to act. We can’t get out of it, around it, or through it because the conditions of the world are fundamentally skewed. Of course, I have no clue whether they would or could express the insight as such (sin is, after all, an inherently religious concept), but certainly this is the interpretive possibility I take from it.
If I left the story here, I would need to go get some more ice-cream. However, I still think that Luther was correct when he posited that the recognition of sin also allows for the recognition of the Gospel: that, actually, things need not be how they currently are—no matter how strong the grips of sin in the world currently seem—and that, though we are powerless against the corrupting conditions of sin, God is not and does not stand idly by allowing sin a full rule of the world. God, rather, plunges into sin, taking up the chaos and nothingness of death into God’s self on the cross. So there’s that, too.
The main point, however, is that I still think “Burn after Reading” is one of the least enjoyable films I’ve ever seen. Then again, most philosophy and theology books are completely un-enjoyable, too, but I’ve learned to enjoy the fruits that come from reflecting on them. So it is with “Burn after Reading.” I never want to step near the film again, but the Coen Brothers, in this movie, pushed me into a series of thoughts that, while difficult, have allowed me to re-appropriate myself and my world in what I believe is a more fruitful mann