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There’s been a great deal written about the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and how Sam Rockwell’s character’s path from violent racist to sympathetic good guy seems phony or unearned. There will be fewer complaints about Burden, based on the true story of a South Carolina Klansman who turned his back on bigotry in the 1990s. There is, however, a catch. This movie is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, with no shortage of cringeworthy moments and an uninteresting lead performance.
When we first meet Garrett Hedlund’s Mike Burden he hardly comes across as a Mensa candidate, but clearly has a good heart. He works with a tight group at a repossession company, led by father figure Tom (Tom Wilkinson). They take their meals together, have a car in a local drag race and are reconstructing the old theater in the small downtown area of Laurens. When Mike has to take a television away from Judy, a struggling working mother with a deadbeat husband, he does what he’s not supposed to do and lets her hold on to the item.
We see Mike as Judy does through her timid eyes beneath a giant mop of red hair (I’ll confess I didn’t recognize Andrea Riseborough until the final credits). Mike may be simple, prone to nervously swaying his head around like a goose when he talks, but he’s a kind soul, right? Well, maybe. Turns out that old theater is about to make its debut as something called The Redneck Store, which sells vulgar racist trinkets. In the back is the KKK Museum, glorifying the murderous American hate group.
The main stretch of Burden is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. One moment Mike is the only man who has ever loved and supported Judy and her cute son Franklin. The next minute he’s using the N word, wearing white sheets and prepping for the inevitable violence that Tom’s shop will bring.
Also in the mix is the local preacher, Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) whose uncle was lynched by the KKK. He’s ready to protest and publicize (and even bring down Reverend Jesse Jackson for a rally) but more than anything he’s prepped to pray. Reverend Kennedy is defiant, but devoted to non-violence. Then he gets his lucky break.
Judy, now Mike’s girlfriend, is not pro-Klan (as the old saying goes, some of her best friends are black, but in this case it’s true) and she urges Mike to quit the group. After a skirmish that nearly turns deadly he does, and they soon learn the power the Klan has over a small town – they get booted from their home and lose their jobs. Penniless and hungry, the only one who will take them in is Reverend Kennedy.
Mike’s long path to enlightenment starts out as one of necessity. He hates having to depend on a black man, but he realizes his ex-friends do not have his interests at heart. After a few drunken montages and flashes of memory, it looks like he’s about to come out the other side, he can still be triggered into his default antagonism.
Riseborough and especially Whitaker both get room for some striking, emotional moments. Hedlund just gets to look gross and mumble. Director Andrew Heckler doesn’t have a natural way of staging scenes (peripheral characters chime in with lines as if it’s a high school play) and there’s no consistent visual sense. The main shtick is to make sure that all the white people look as dirty and grungy as possible. Poor people may not have much, but they do have showers. No one except the Reverend’s family looks like they’ve bathed in a month. (When Mike gives Judy his gross stained sweatshirt what’s meant to be romantic may actually make you hurl.)
Burden does not have enough working for it to achieve escape velocity from that horrible fate: a movie that can be called “important”, but actually offers little entertainment value. A quick peek at Wikipedia shows that the uplifting ending didn’t quite go the way it’s shown in the movie, either. The good secondary performances aren’t enough to overcome what is ultimately guilt cinema, and that’s a burden to us all.
- Burden is showing at the Sundance film festival
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Burden review – Ku Klux Klan drama is as subtle as a sledgehammer | Sundance 2018