CD Review: Burn After Reading

Composer: Carter Burwell
Label: Lakeshore
Suggested Retail Price: $18.98
Grade: B

In his twelve soundtracks for Joel and Ethan Coen, Carter Burwell has scored for numerous miscreants and their murderous schemes of blackmail. In fact, all three men’s macabre-filled careers got their start with 1984’s BLOOD SIMPLE, for which Burwell provided a strikingly ominous synth/chamber score. In the nearly 25 years since, Burwell’s way of treating the Coens’ ironic brand of darkness has gotten progressively more elaborate and innovative. MILLERS’ CROSSING would be made with brooding Irish melody, while FARGO’s chain of brutal fools was given a Midwestern twang in contrast to THE LADYKILLERS’ gospel stylings. The lethal divorce proceedings of INTOLERABLE CRUELTY became screwball pomp, and THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE made his walk to the chair with ironic orchestral strains. Even the no-score-or-else soundtrack of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN got a chilling end credit roll from Burwell.

But no matter what style Carter Burwell employs for the Coens’ crime operas, there’s a grinding, inexorable quality to his music that suggests fate is pressing down on the characters. It can be out of control in a trumpeting way, or as chill and melodic as piano snow on a cold string winter’s day. Now Burwell’s new Coen score for BURN AFTER READING features both approaches, with dangerously powerhouse music that would suggest a government conspiracy of the highest order.

The fact that Burwell and the Coens are dealing with a gang of idiots that make the conspirators of FARGO and THE LADYKILLERS seem like Mensa candidates is the punch line to the film and its music, its score ranging from the hilariously over-the-top to poetic subtlety. It’s a punch line that goes straight to the percussive gut, music made even funnier if you know the buffoonery it’s accompanying.

The MacGuffin of BURN AFTER READING is a “tell all” book written by a drunk, and dissatisfied ex-CIA man whose transcript falls into the hands of vainglorious gym employees. The fact that The Company bosses couldn’t give a crap about the confessional doesn’t stop a lot of people from ending up dead, or very frazzled by trying to sell it to the uninterested parties. Burwell’s approach is to play the fear-gripped emotions of a gang of idiots who are caught up in a self-imagined conspiracy, delivering gargantuan thematic crescendos that have a time-running-out-to-an-explosion vibe that would make Jack Bauer break out in a sweat, all beginning with a Taiko drum “Earth Zoom” that would fit right into an episode of CSI or 24.

Yet READING isn’t only in the key of orchestral panic. As his slower piano and string passages reaching a beautiful, repetitive rhythm that Philip Glass would admire. It’s a constant musical battle between the melancholy, melodic resignation of John Malkovich’s burned-out “spook” with the spastic idiocy around him, a simmering rage against mediocrity that finally drives him over the edge. And in the process, it lets Burwell inject some new musical blood into his Coen work with rock guitar and sampled percussion.

But where it’s smashingly loud or poetically quiet, BURN AFTER READING’s score is always driven by the kind of ironic danger that’s made Burwell and the Coens such great partners. With his mix of eccentric melody and the Coens humorously nasty deconstruction of movie suspense, these fellows are the gonzo answer to Herrmann and Hitchcock, all with a style of music that’s steadily become a joke onto itself. In BURN AFTER READING, it delivers one of its least obvious, and most intense punch lines.

Listen to a good read HERE.


  • Carolyn Horn
    September 17, 2008 @ 8:32 am

    Carter Burwell is the best composer in films today.

  • September 20, 2008 @ 11:05 am

    Brad Pitt can be so funny, as long as he’s not taking himself too seriously… in any case, it’s about time someone made good use of his habitually spastic arm movements

  • September 20, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

    I LOVED Carter Burwell’s music score for “Burn After Reading.” He’s a genius.
    Is there a soundtrack disk on the market for this movie? The movie was fabulous,
    but the music was even better.

    Nancy Pace

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *