This review wasn’t intended to be a Coen brothers propaganda piece, but something deserves to be said of a duo that can, after making a movie depicting a world as dark and gloomy as was shown in the Oscar-winning masterpiece No Country for Old Men, give us a ridiculously absurd one – one with selfish people with selfish motives doing selfish things – in Burn After Reading, a wonderful black comedy.
The Coen Brothers know how to write. They have a gift for screenplay – taut and gripping writing, backed up by a solid cast. Solid hardly begins to describe what the combined efforts of George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand bring to the acting department.
Every actor pulls their weight, be it John Malkovich as the army-man slowly losing his grip, Clooney as the suave playboy, or Brad Pitt, providing an absolutely stellar performance as the naive gym trainer eagerly excited after coming across “important shit”, his way of referring to sensitive information. Also featuring is J.K. Simmons, and while his scenes are rushed – there are only two of them – there is no way they could be considered a drag, so finely crafted are they.
Without giving too much away, the plot concerns itself with a contrived series of events leading to some sensitive data falling in the hands of employees of a local gym, leading to another contrived set of events, more quirky, random things, and several other humorous happenings.
The plot synopsis now out of the way, there’s just one more aspect to dwell on, and that is Frances McDormand. Anchoring this movie with her masterful acting, her performance here is reminiscent of an older one of hers dating back to 1996 – in partnership, yet again, with the Coen Brothers: Fargo.
Now reborn as a television show, Fargo has surpassed expectations year after year. In this form as an anthology series, meaning that each season is independent of the others and tells a different story, Fargo has free rein to explore different styles of storytelling, introduce brand new characters, and weave together a distinctive, convoluted plot ten episodes at a time.
Doing all of that while still staying true to the spirit of the film on which it is based is a tough ask, and that is where Noah Hawley, the brain behind this show and the sole credited writer of the entirety of the first season, displays his genius, gifting the world with a sublime first season that displayed the acting talents of Martin Freeman as a pitiable salesman who gets in way over his head, Billy Bob Thornton as the intense anarchist Lorne Malvo, and Colin Hanks and Alison Tolman as conscientious cops Gus Grimly and Molly Solverson respectively (also, Bob Odenkirk of Better Call Saul fame appears as a guest star).
With a first season as marvelous and thoroughly unexpected as the one Hawley delivered, fans’ expectations for the second season (as well as my own, I must admit) were of a unique nature. While everyone hoped for another tale as enticing as the one just proffered, precious few believed that the sophomore season could be at par, let alone trump, its predecessor. After all, True Detective, another anthology series with a stunning premiere season, managed to mess it all up in its second edition, and its creator Nic Pizzolato is not without talent.
After watching both seasons of Fargo, and as much of the third season as has been aired, I can confidently state, without a shadow of a doubt, that Noah Hawley is a veritable legend.
Establishing a whole new set of relatable characters, precisely weaving a complex plot, and presenting the tale in the unique, quirky style only Fargo can pull off, Hawley displays in the follow-up season that he is, indeed, more than capable of delivering quality television. The reminders at the beginning of each episode, confidently claiming that it tells “a true story” and that “everything.. is told exactly as it occurred”, are telling callbacks to the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece.
Also relevant here and thorougly deserving mention is Legion, another FX show courtesy of Noah Hawley, that tells the tale of David Haller (Dan Stevens, from Downton Abbey), a strange, troubled soul with seemingly extraordinary powers. Some people like me picked up this show because of Hawley, but you could just as well watch it for the downright brilliant Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation‘s April Ludgate), who ought to be given every single Emmy award for her performance.
Summer is a perfect time to binge watch movies and TV shows. This should keep you occupied for the next week or so.
– Kaushik Sambamurthy