Movies have a seemingly unenviable task of trying to be a medium wanting to tell not only a visual story, but a narrative one as well. This is a particular struggle of independent cinema as they try to not only shoot something visually interesting, but craft a script that makes you think as well.
Burden follows a true story surrounding the personal drama rising in the wake of a KKK museum opening in South Carolina. The film stars Garrett Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough and Forrest Whitaker. Andrew Heckler directs the film from his own script.
Unfortunately, Burden quickly shows itself to be a case of missed potential. There are some very interesting pieces to this story, but in structuring the script to spotlight Mike Burden (Hedlund), Heckler loses any compelling narrative he might have had. There are some riveting and emotional characters here, particularly Judy (Riseborough) and Reverend Kennedy (Whitaker). However, no one is truly given the opportunity to shine.
In spotlighting Burden as the film does, this becomes yet another story of white male rage at its most basic. The character has interesting backstory, which is hinted at through Clarence (Usher Raymond) who makes it clear that Mike wasn’t always the racist we see on screen. They were friends and played together as children. However, this narrative is sped through in a single montage. Instead, the story places all its stakes Burden’s transformative arch as he realizes (thanks to the love of a good woman!) that he really doesn’t want to be a member of the Klan.
Hedlund leads the film and it is Burden who the audience seems supposed to sympathize with. However, the story misses the mark with the character. Up until the beginning of the third act, Mike is fully and completely unsympathetic.
He doesn’t learn his lessons. Late in the second act when he looses his job for attacking his employer (at a job given to get him off the streets) and calling him a vicious racial epithet, it’s hard to see why people keep trying to help him. He continues making terrible decisions and hurting everyone around him, yet he never acknowledges this in the narrative outside of liquor and violence. Scenes like these might have worked had they dug into this character, but the story seems far more interested in honing in on his simplicity. As such, it is difficult to champion Mike when he finally comes around at the end of the movie.
The movie does everything it can to tap into the nostalgia, heritage and sense of family which the Klan symbolized for a certain community. In the first two acts, the action spends a lot of time with Mike and the Klan. However, Tom Wilkinson plays Klan patriarch Tom Griffin as so heinously unlikable that it’s difficult to understand Mike’s conflict throughout the second half of the movie.
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Burden does have other heroes, and it isn’t the titular character. Riseborough’s Judy manages to be both the MVP and the most under utilized member of the cast. She continues to be one of the most unsung performers in her generation-perhaps because she’s a chameleon and feels different in every movie which she appears. She finds depth and soul in a character which the script doesn’t want to care about. Had the script explored this woman, trapped in this challenging world and a borderline toxic relationship, this could have been a seriously solid role for the actress. There are some hints at greatness, but as is, the script struggles to establish Judy as anything more than the stereotypical supportive wife, punching bag and martyr.
The film never quite capitalizes on the emotion which it wants – and needs- to establish. This is a heavy handed, racial and social drama. An audience is supposed to come out of this thinking and feeling. However, the story never quite finds its footing in trying to juggle the characters and this heavy subject matter, and as a result nothing quite gels. The pacing struggles, particularly late into the second act, making the film feel longer than its less than two hour run time. There is truly a lot which Burden is attempting to accomplish, but it frustratingly never quite hits its stride.
Ultimately, Burden is an example of painfully missed potential. The movie hovers just on the cusp of telling an interesting story, but unimaginative writing keeps this from reaching its height. As it is, this heavy handed racial drama is little more than a generic work of indie cinema, it ticks all the boxes, but can’t quite capture the heart it is hoping for.
Burden is now playing in theaters around the country.
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