BURDEN: An Unwieldy Load

We, who are devoted to making and analyzing movies, like to think they matter, that they have some influence on the world. Through them we can fight for the changes we wish to see, and maybe, just maybe, make our lives a little bit better.

It’s always nice to think your work makes a difference, but we can’t will these things into importance any more than we can make every moment of our lives impactful. Sometimes you just have to relax, and often times movies only get to some fleeting sensation that leaves you as soon as you turn it off.

Burden is one of those movies that clearly wants to be impactful, that wants to make some big, grand statement about racism (or, more specifically, racists) that will leave its viewers a little better for having seen it. Unfortunately, its misfires are too numerous to hit on any sort of reality, making its statement as frothy and frivolous as less ambitious entertainments.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This Before

That Burden doesn’t feel real is a massive problem because it is, in fact, based on a true story. There was a white man named Michael Burden who lived in South Carolina in the mid-1990s, was a member of the KKK, and helped run The Redneck Shop (a store that sold overtly racist items and had a KKK museum in the back). He ended up leaving the KKK and subsequently formed a bond with a black reverend, giving this movie a strange story to jump off of, one that should need little embellishment. Instead, writer/director Andrew Heckler runs it through a grinder and reassembled with its parts so neatly that all life was left on the scrap pile.

BURDEN: An Unwieldy Load
source: 101 Studios

The fact is that we’ve heard the rough outline of this a million times. A look at the way white men, particularly poor white men, are lured into racist groups with offers of community and a sense of pride have been rehashed again and again on screen (I’ve reviewed two in the last year for this very site: The Best of Enemies and Skin). And I don’t think I need to detail how often we see white people “overcome” their racism through friendship with a person of color. The interesting aspects of Burden’s story are the details, particularly that horrifying shop and how the people in the town reacted to it, but that’s glossed over in favor of Burden’s all-too-familiar story.

And yes, his story is true, and yes, there’s nothing inherently wrong with telling that story. But we see so many middling examples of it that I can pull the asshole move of quoting my own review of Best of Enemies to explain my exhausted reaction to Burden: “given the prevalence of these narratives and the lack of more hard-hitting examinations of race in (particularly American) films, these softballs have become tiresome to many.”

I’m included in the “many”. I’m tired of them. I’m tired of seeing movies in this vein with little to say and no new way of saying it, and I’m tired of coming up with new ways to explain why I’m tired about them (hence the quote). I’m just tired of them.

A Biopic Without Character

As much as it may be off-putting to me, this is a biopic of Michael Burden, so at the very least I should get some idea of the man. This, too, is lacking thanks to that cookie-cutter script, but some of the blame must also fall on Garrett Hedlund, whose performance as Burden is a mess of clichés.

BURDEN: An Unwieldy Load
source: 101 Studios

To his credit, he is trying for a full body performance, meaning he’s trying to change his entire way of moving to match his character, an acting trick that should be much more prevalent than it is. I’ve long held that Marion Cotillard is our current master of this; I mean, she won an Oscar for it with La Vie En Rose, and just comparing the way she moves in Inception versus Two Days, One Night shows how much range she’s got in this department.

Hedlund, apparently, does not share her skill. The first time I saw the floppy, wide gait he affects here I almost burst out laughing. The hint of truth he’s clung to, the way many men of this socioeconomic background I know move, is so blown out of proportion that it becomes, inadvertently, caricature.

That, paired with the script problems and some atrociously on the nose efforts from the hair and costume departments leaves Hedlund and all the other actors (an impressive group that includes Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, and Tom Wilkinson) adrift in some alternate version of the 1990s, and its effect is incredibly distancing. You’re told up front that this is based on a true story, but you never once believe it.

Overburdened

They say Jesus spoke in parables, a phrase which popped in my mind when a particularly heavy-handed childhood tale is dropped in Burden, and given that the second most prominent character in this movie is a reverend, I almost forgave it as a well-intentioned but overdone attempt at mirroring that teaching style. Then the movie does it again and peppers in some stylistic choices that scream “metaphor” way too many times (anyone who’s seen The Shawshank Redemption will recognize a piece of symbolism), and it became apparent that Heckler simply flubbed this entire concept.

BURDEN: An Unwieldy Load
source: 101 Studios

Perhaps if he had integrated them better, but each break from the narrative’s usual momentum is jarring, like he couldn’t decide whether to make this a gritty bit of realism or a stylish take on a character’s inner turmoil. Most of the film is shot with a shaky camera that’s intended to make you feel like you’re standing in the room, but sporadically the film takes off in a flight of fancy with no transition to ease you into it. It gives one sore thumbs watching the film jump between styles, ensuring that its metaphorical leaps stick out as entirely unneeded.

Conclusion: Burden

Hampered by a story you’ve heard a million times and an uneven approach, Burden never justifies why we’re revisiting such familiar material.

What did you think of Burden? Did you think it found something interesting to say about Michael Burden’s story? Let us know in the comments!

Burden was released in theaters in the US on February 28th, 2020. Further release dates are not currently known.

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