When Joel and Ethan Coen roared back to life a year ago with No Country For Old Men, it was easy for some to peg the film inaccurately as an anomaly in their catalogue. Though The Man Who Wasn’t There is just as austere, No Country‘s bleak assessment of human nature stood out even among their collection of violent human oddities. The brothers have always made films about losers and violent weirdos, but never seemed so ready to leap into full-blown gloom as in their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel.

Either McCarthy’s influence was more pervasive than we thought, or the brothers Coen have deepened their pessimism. Burn After Reading, the duo’s return to overt comedy, is the psychotically funny flipside to No Country For Old Men. It is a deeply cynical and ugly appraisal of human nature in which we are undone by casual selfishness and stupidity rather than pure evil, but no less miserable for it. Easing the sting is an onslaught of bitingly hilarious dialogue. But in the end the jokes only make each cut go deeper.

The action takes place inside the D.C. Beltway. Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, looking as invigorated as recent Coen work feels) is an elitist pinhead who quits his CIA gig rather than taking a demotion. Cooped up at home he begins to write a banal memoir even as his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton, able to deep-freeze a room with a casual glance) is screwing Treasury guy Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and contemplating divorce proceedings.  

As part of her divorce prep, Katie grabs a bunch of Osborne’s files which, through a mundane chain of mishandling, end up in the hands of fitness trainers Linda (Frances McDormand, firing on all cylinders) and Chad (Brad Pitt). They contact Cox, who believes he’s being blackmailed. That sets off a chain of lowbrow espionage acts akin to Three Days of the Condor by way of the Pink Panther. Here, however, nearly everyone is playing Clouseau.

The plot is as ungainly as it sounds on paper, and the film doesn’t rush the setup. The tousled associations between Pfarrer and the Cox family are established with less urgency than an average television pilot; even as Linda and Chad are gradually looped into the dramatic noose the Coens don’t seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere. But watch out when that noose finally pulls tight. Burn‘s long climax is a killer that is every bit as devastating as No Country‘s conclusion, but far funnier.

The long setup allows the brothers plenty of time to poke at these people twisting in the wind. There are the satirical jabs, like the CIA brass played by J.K. Simmons who just wants to sit behind his desk waiting to wipe off whatever problems come across it. Osborne Cox rails against the morons he’s suffered throughout a career in intelligence, and the passive, bureaucrats above him suggest that he might have a point. Yet if his dictated memoir and aging basement computer setup are any indication, he’s as incompetent as his superiors. He’s not made to look any better when dilettante spies Linda and Chad look only slightly less competent than the pros.

The vague beltway satire is entertaining, but really an excuse to get to a more high-concept idea: surveillance as conscience. A primary factor of espionage is that actions are only criminal if you get caught, but the satellite views that bookend the story suggest that we’re all busted already. If that’s the case, we’re also as doomed as the pathetic dolts who populate the film.

Clooney’s manic and self-loathing Pfarrer is the primary plaything of the surveillance / conscience notion. His constant and enthusiastic womanizing is occasionally interrupted by bursts of paranoia when black sedans hover menacingly nearby. He’s a fascinating character, more vulnerable and off-kilter than personas previously devised for the Coens. He’s also one of the only individuals in this whacked passion play for whom there’s any hope.

Pfarrer’s flipside is the vapid but endearing Chad. Brad Pitt runs with the chance to show off his versatility in manic style. He’s physically able to push Chad into wild motion without ever seeming out of his element, while he renders Chad’s forays into real conversation as epic struggles between boundless intent and limited intellect. But just as Pfarrer might be a dim, flickering beacon of hope, Chad is part of the horrifically cynical machinery that drives this movie; I deserve to burn for laughing at him outright, but at least I’ll go out with a smile on my face.

I’m at the point where I could go on, deeper into drawing out the new rogue’s gallery. And it seems criminal to exit without mentioning the amazing reveal that nails Tilda Swinton’s character, the wonderfully odd everywoman played by Frances McDormand, her crushingly sincere would-be paramour Richard Jenkins, the inscrutable Olek Krupa and more. But I don’t want to ruin anything.

One note: At this point the Coen Brothers’ work has become synonymous with the cinematography of Roger Deakins. Casual observers might fail to notice Deakins’ absence (he was otherwise occupied on Revolutionary Road) but I couldn’t help wondering whether some of Burn‘s clunky bits might have been more fluid seen through his eye. As a replacement, Emmanuel Lubezki brings a slightly less artistic touch to the material; ironic, given his striking work on films like Children of Men and The New World.

Leaving No Country For Old Men, I had no question that I’d seen a masterpiece. Burn After Reading is too rough around the edges to produce the same feeling. But I didn’t love The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? after first viewings. I’m already more taken with the outrageous misanthropy of this film, and won’t be surprised to find it growing in my estimation as time goes on. There’s nothing quite like observing the Coen Brothers as they circle prey before going right for the throat.

8.4 out of 10