Coen Brothers Wiki

Burn After Reading is a 2008 American comedy film written, produced, edited and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film includes many A-list stars like George Clooney, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, and Brad Pitt. The film premiered on August 27, 2008, when it opened the 2008 Venice Film Festival. It had a wide release in the United States on September 12, 2008, and in the United Kingdom on October 17, 2008.

Directed by

Joel Coen

Ethan Coen

Produced by

Joel Coen

Ethan Coen

Written by 

Joel Coen

Ethan Coen


George Clooney

Frances McDormand

John Malkovich

Brad Pitt

Music by  Carter Burwell
Cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki
Edited by  Roderick Jaynes
Production company

Studio Canal

Relativity Media

Working Title

Distributed by Focus Features
Release date

September 12, 2008 (US)

Running time 96 minutes

United States

United Kingdom


Language English
Budget $37 million
Box office $163.7 million

Facing a demotion at work due to drinking problem, Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) angrily quits his job as a CIA analyst, and decides to use his new free time to write a memoir.  When his wife Katie (Swinton) finds out about his termination, she used it as an opportunity to file for divorce and continue her affair with Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a deputy U.S. Marshal.  Harry is also married to a children's book writer, who is away on a book tour.  She copies her husband's financial records and other files, including the draft memoir, off his computer and gives them to her lawyer.

Brad Pitt as Chad Feldheimer

Her lawyer's assistant copies the files onto a CD, which she accidentally leaves on the locker room floor of a local gym, Hardbodies.  The disc is discovered by a dim-witted personal trainer, Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) and his co-worker Linda Litzke (McDormand), who mistakenly believe it to contain sensitive government information.  They plan to return the disc for a reward, with Linda hoping to use the money to pay for cosmetic surgery.  After a phone call and meeting with Osbourne cause a furious reaction.  Linda decides that the two should try to sell the information on the CD and go to the Russian embassy.

Osbourn's increasingly tempermental behavior prompts his wife to change the locks on their house, and invites Harry to move in with her.  A womanizer, Harry is coincidentally also seeing Linda.  Linda persuades Chad to sneak into the Coxes's home to get more files from their computer.  Harry finds Chad hiding in a closet and fatally shoots him.  

Two days later at the CIA headquarters, Plamer Smith (Simmons), Osbournes's former superior, and his director learn that informatijon from Osbourne has been given to the Russian Embassy.  They are confused because the material delivered to the Russians is of no importance, and the motive of all parties involved is unknown.

Harry grows increasingly more paranoid, argues with Katie, and leaves the house.  On his way out, he spots a man who has been following him for the past several days.  Harry tackles the man and learns that he is a private detective hired by his wife to gather evidence to divorce him.  Harry is devastated and goes to see an agitated Linda, who confides to Harry that Chad is missing.  Harry agrees to help find Chad.

Linda returns to the Russian embassy to find Chad. The Russians dismiss the CD contents, and escort a furious Linda off the embassy grounds.  She turns to her kindhearted manager at Hardbodies, Ted Treffon (Jenkins), who has unrequited feelings for her.  Against his better judgement, Ted agrees to go to the Coxes' home to search Osbourne's computer and look for Chad.

Harry and Linda meet in a park where Harry sees a man looking at Linda and asks if she knows him.  After denying knowing the man, Harry becomes suspicious.  When Linda tells Harry the address where Chad disappeared, Harry realizes that Chad is the man he shot.  Convinced that Linda is a spy and that everyone in the park is surveilling him, Harry panics and flees.  

Osbourne becomes unhinged when he finds out that Katie has emptied his bank accounts and decides to break into his house to get his alcohol and personal belonings.  He finds Ted in the basement, Osbourne shoots Ted and shases him wielding a hatchet.  A CIA agent intervenes by shooting Osbourne, leaving him in a coma.

At the CIA headquarters a few days later, Palmer and his director try to understand what happened. Harry has been detained trying to flee to Venezuela, as that country has a noextradition treaty with the US, therefore will not send him back.  The director instructs Palmer to let him go to Venezuela.  The director and Palmer agree to leave Osbourne comatose and deal with him if he ever wakes.  The final loose end is Linda, who promises to keep quiet if they will pay for her plastic surgery, which the director agrees to. They conclude that there appears to be no lesson for the agency to learn from the events.  "I guess we learned not to do it again," the director says, despite not knowing exactly what they did, and closes the file.  


George Clooney - Harry Pfarrer

Burn After Reading theatrical poster

Richard Jenkins - Ted Treffon

John Malkovich - Osbourne Cox

Frances McDormand - Linda Litzke

Brad Pitt - Chad Feldheimer

J. K. Simmons - CIA director

Tilda Swinton - Katie Cox

Elizabeth Marvel - Sandra "Sandy" Pfarrer

David Rasche - Palmer Smith

Jefferey DeMunn - Cosmetic surgeon

Kevin Sussman - Suerveillance

Olek Krupa - Krapotkin


  • This is the first Coen brothers film not to use Roger Deakins as cinematographer since Miller's Crossing (1990).  Four-time Academy Award nominated, Emmanuel Lubezki also known as "Chivo," which means goat in Spanish, shot Burn After Reading.
  • When discussing the score with frequent collaborator, Carter Burwell, the Coens described that they wanted it to sound like "something big and bombastic, something important sounding but absolutely meaningless."
  • This is the first original screenplay written by the Coens in seven years since The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). 
  • The Coen brothers have said that this film is their "version of a Tony Scott/Jason Bourne kind of movie, without the explosions."
  • The Coens intended to make a spy movie because, "we hadn't done one before," but did not intend for this film to be a comment or satire on Washington D.C. It was their attempt at a "fun story."
  • The Coens wrote characters with actors George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and Richard Jenkins in mind to play those parts.  They struggled to make a common filming schedule among the A-list cast.
  • The film opened at the Venice Film Festival in August 2008.
  • This is George Clooney's third time acting in a Coen brothers film (O, Brother Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty), and has acknowledged that he usually plays a fool in their movies. 
  • Brad Pitt, who plays a particularly unitelligent character, said, "after reading the part, which they said was hand-written for myself, I was not sure if I should be flattered or insulted."  When he was shown the script, he told the Coens he did not know how to play the part because the character was such an idiot.  "There was a pause, and then Joel goes, 'You'll be fine.'"