Sundance Film Festival
I’ve seen three films at Sundance starring Andrea Riseborough this year, and each time, it has taken me a good 20 minutes or so before I realized who I was looking at. That is true once again in the not-as-searing-as-it-wants-to-be BURDEN, which is based on a true story of a man whose virulent lifelong racism was cured by the love of a skinny white woman.
It’s a little bit more sophisticated than that, but not much, and that’s my biggest problem with Burden. When I realized that the main character’s name was Mike Burden, I thought it felt like the most on the nose bit of character-name-as-metaphor I’d encountered in a while. And then, as the closing credits began, they showed footage of the real Mike Burden, and I had to adjust my thinking to blame reality itself for the thumpingly obvious metaphor. Just because something is true does not mean it works dramatically, and Burden plays just loose enough with the truth of the story that the easy, cheap shortcuts in the storytelling undermine the genuinely good intent of telling this story in the first place.
Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) is an unapologetic member of the Ku Klux Klan, raised by Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), a local Klan leader who has ties to every business in town, including the sheriff’s office. They live in Laurens, South Carolina, where they buy a local theater and re-open it as The Redneck Shop & KKK Museum. Forest Whitaker plays Reverend Kennedy, who organizes his congregation to protest the museum, leading him into direct conflict with Griffin and his gang. Things get complicated when Mike meets single mom Judy (Riseborough) while working a repo job. He’s drawn to her right away, and it’s clear from the reactions from everyone around him that he’s never really chased a woman before. Little wonder; Burden is an animal, whipped into shape by Tom Griffin, and Hedlund plays him like a junkyard dog, feral and constantly constricted, pulled into himself as if constantly ready to explode. He barely knows how to tell Judy what he wants, and it’s up to her to make every move. But she sees something in him, in the way he treats her son, and she finds herself drawn to him. But she also sees who he is with the Klan and how he bristles at any suggestion that Tom Griffin is anything less than absolutely right.
There’s something that Fred Rogers said in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary I reviewed earlier in the festival, about how everything in life, every choice made by every person, can be boiled down to either love, or a lack of love. I’m not sure I think it’s that broad, but I agree with the general idea. So much of who we are is taught and inherited and modeled based on where we get what we need. We need love. We need connection. We need community. And if the only place we get that is from a toxic source, then so be it. That’s one of those truths that we have to address if we ever hope to actually make sense of where racism comes from and how it thrives. It is hard to overcome, and I know how complicated it can be to love someone who holds views you see as monstrous. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a very Southern old white woman who lived in Memphis most of her life. Her views on race and her language about race would upset me terribly when I was young. It shocked me to hear those things come out of her mouth and there were times I would push back, challenging her on it. It was clear, though, that she was who she was and had been since long before I was born. All I could do was take my reaction to her words and her actions and make sure I never made other people feel like that, and it made it complicated to love her. It made me ashamed sometimes, and it’s hard to be ashamed of someone you love.
Judy begins to put pressure on Mike, more by example and by loving him even at his worst, and the turning point seems to come when she asks him a very simple question: “I love you even if you’re racist; would Tom Griffin love you if you weren’t?” And that question, that shift in perception, is enough to start Burden’s journey towards becoming something else, something better than a racist attack dog. For the most part, what works about Burden works because of the actors. Hedlund is very good, even if he does have a weird physical tic he’s adopted here that has him constantly shifting and rolling even when he stands still. He benefits from having Riseborough to bounce off of, because she’s great. She feels like she absolutely belongs in this time and place. Tom Wilkinson is good at conveying the malice, but he’s got that “English actor doing a Southern accent” accent that’s not really the right accent, but rather a weird approximation of it. Whitaker is strong as a man of faith who is struggling to walk the walk when he takes Mike Burden into his home after he is cast out from his Klan community, and I really liked Crystal Fox as his wife.
But every time Heckler made a choice here about the real story versus his version, he’s gone with the easy answer, the quick fix, the cheap redemption. He is supported ably by the photography by Jeremy Rouse, who has created an unromanticized but authentic feeling South, and the score by Dickon Hinchliffe is appropriate without ever bludgeoning the audience into what they’re supposed to feel. It’s Heckler who feels like he didn’t trust the inherent weight of this material, making it into something conventional and safe and, ultimately, dishonest. I believe change can happen, and that love is part of any real and lasting change, but this conversation is too important to have in a manner as glib as this. Burden means well, but it just can’t live up to its own aspirations.
Running time: 129 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic