The Coens for Lent – Burn After Reading

The fourteenth of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]

by guest writer Kevin Harrington-Bain

“And now with the cell phones? Pretty soon they’re gonna know where everyone is. Everyone. At any given moment.” Harry

And so George Clooney’s prophetic career continues.

But this particular oracle from Burn After Reading is much more than a relic from 2008 when the sun was setting on the Bush administration and rising on the smartphone era. It directs us to the anxiety at the core of the film, the time of the movie’s release, and even of Lent: you are being watched.

Lent is a season that can be difficult to wrap our minds around. It doesn’t translate as well as other seasons like Advent and Christmas. Anticipation and celebration are things anyone can understand. Dwelling on our mortality in the wilderness for 40 days, though? Doesn’t really carry the same mass appeal. But as always, that wilderness is always much nearer than any of us care to realize or acknowledge. Wilderness can be a place separate from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, sure, but it just as readily embodies the out-of-bounds, the chaotic, the liminal space where change can happen with room for the process to be messy.

The promise that Burn After Reading delivers on, of course, is that the mess of our chaotic lives can’t go unnoticed. Everyone has such a selective sense of what parts of their lives are being watched by others, all while refusing to see what’s happening right in front of them. After quitting his job as a CIA analyst, Osbourne Cox commits to writing a memoir, hoping to reclaim some notoriety and insisting that “they’ll all see,” completely unaware that only precisely the wrong people will ever read or care about it. Linda Litzke wants plastic surgeries to improve her looks. Ted just wants Linda to see herself as he sees her, in hopes that she’ll see him as a viable dating option. Harry (Clooney’s character) wants to be seen as macho for carrying a gun, noble for never firing it, and for his extra-marital affairs to fly coolly under his wife’s nose.

And Chad, presumably, wants us to see what he’s done with his hair. We see, Chad. And we stand in awe.

In one scene Harry spins around in a park, seeing how many eyes are on him – or worse yet – could be on him: CIA agents, divorce lawyers, former internet dates, drivers of mysterious black cars that he has literally spent the movie running from or chasing off. This was his wilderness. His mess. Wasn’t it? How long have they been watching? What have they seen?

Like so much in the theological world, our relationship with wilderness depends on the tone with which we read it. Like imagining God’s tone of voice when asking Adam and Eve “where are you?” in the garden, do we take the wilderness as a lawless wasteland or an open canvas where the chaos of our lives is laid bare? And when we come face to face with our own mortality – just as Harry does – do we lock eyes with our watcher in fear or relief? For as often as people claim to want to be seen, really seen, the wilderness reveals just how uncomfortable we are under the gaze of another.

As it turns out, every facet of the chaos in Burn After Reading is being closely monitored by the CIA which is just as baffled as any of the characters as to what’s going on. “Report back when it makes sense,” one agent is told, and after the events appear to resolve, the debrief goes a little like, “Well what did we learn?” “Not to do it again, I guess. Though I have no idea what ‘it’ is.” We could take this to mean that the watchers of our wilderness are indifferent or ambivalent.

But for me there’s a comfort in knowing that our chaos isn’t wasted. Our time in the wilderness isn’t for naught, even if we can’t see what it yields. That the kingdom of God isn’t a surveillance state, but a kingdom indeed; resting and wandering under a watchful eye that sees all the mess and still doesn’t turn away.

[See all entries in “The Coens for Lent” series]

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