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The Well Intentioned “Burden” Can’t Find The Proper Path

More than two years after its debut at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Burden has finally come to theaters. After a surprisingly long wait, especially considering how the movie took home an award at Sundance, has it been worth the wait? Well, that’s a complicated questions. At times, the film is compelling, with high quality acting. At other points, however, the writing and direction can’t stack up to the performances. The end result is a flick with something to say, but a muddled way of saying it. Unfortunately, it won’t result in a recommendation here, though it’s undoubtedly not without its charms.

This film is a drama, based on a true story, that looks at the impact that racist views can have on an individual. Set in a small South Carolina town, we meet Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), a repo man who also happens to be a part of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Long under the thumb of KKK chapter leader Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), a father figure to him, the group is prepping the opening of a Ku Klux Klan museum. Inflaming the town and raising the ire of Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), a longtime foil for Griffin. While this is going on, Mike meets and begins wooing Judy (Andrea Riseborough), bringing love into his life for the first time. The entry of Judy and her son Franklin (Taylor Gregory) into his life softens him, leading him to re-evaluate his choices. Choosing to break away from the Klan, he winds up becoming a rival of Griffin’s. With nowhere else to go, Kennedy takes him in, setting him up for a second chance at life, if the Klan doesn’t ruin things first. Andrew Heckler writes and directs, with music by Dickon Hinchliffe, while Jeremy Rouse handles the cinematography. Rounding out the cast are the likes of Usher Raymond, among others.

Some strong acting hides a lot of the flaws here. Garrett Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough, Forest Whitaker, and Tom Wilkinson are at the tops of their respective games, especially in quieter moments. Hedlund has long been a reliable actor working ever so slightly below the radar, and that’s the case again here. Before the script lets him down, he’s doing some of his best work, to date. Whitaker and Wilkinson are Academy Award nominated (and in the former’s case, a winner), so their bona fides are pretty clear. The flick forgets about them a bit too often, but when they’re on screen, it’s good stuff. Then, there’s Riseborough, who’s quiet forcefulness is the MVP here. If it was just an acting clinic on display, this would be quality entertainment. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Burden falters the more it leans into the melodrama of its fact based story. Characters begin doing things that the plot necessitates, as opposed to what feels natural. Mike especially falls into this trap. Initially, he’s barely seen as someone with hate filled views. Then, when filmmaker Andrew Heckler needs, he becomes a monster. The inconsistencies there stop the movie dead in its tracks. Worse, the pacing is so slack, making a near two hour film feel far longer, that any narrative momentum is short lived. It’s all well meaning, with its heart in the right place, but the execution does leave a bit to be desired.

Now playing, Burden has high quality acting at odds with its middling storytelling. While that equation might be enough to rope in some audience members, for yours truly, it wasn’t quite enough. Hedlund, Riseborough, Whitaker, and Wilkinson do their part, that’s for sure. See it if you so desire and make up your own mind. Just know that it ultimately left me wanting more…

Burden is in select theaters now.

(Photos courtesy of 101 Studios)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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