Burden (United States/Canada, 2018)February 28, 2020
This review contains some minor spoilers.
Burden is one of those socially-conscious movies where you’re tempted to say, “Well, at least its heart is in the right place.” A historically-based film with an old-fashioned theme of love triumphing over hatred, the movie is at times too overt in pursuing its agenda. This is a film where the bad guys are really bad and the good guys are really good. There’s not a lot of room for the in-between gray areas; when the movie finds those (which, to its credit, it does on a few occasions), that’s when Burden feels more like a movie than a sermon given by one of its main characters.
Burden recounts events that happened in Laurens, South Carolina in 1996 (although there are times when it feels more like 1966). The local branch of the KKK, led by the unapologetic racist Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), whose grandpa exterior belies the hatred underneath, has purchased and renovated a defunct theater and re-opened it as “The Redneck KKK Museum.” For repo man Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), this is a moment of triumph. As one of Griffin’s closest disciples, it represents an opportunity for the white trash of the community to rise up. Around this time, however, Mike falls in love. The object of his ardor is Judy Harbeson (Andrea Riseborough), whose views about race are considerably more enlightened than Mike’s. When she gives him an ultimatum, he has no choice but to quit the Klan – a move that doesn’t sit well with Griffin or any of his powerful friends. Suddenly homeless and with no job, Mike has nowhere to turn but to the man he had once been ordered to kill: Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), Laurens’ pacifist black preacher who finds himself challenged to follow his own homilies about defeating hatred through love by reaching out a hand to his enemy and offering him refuge. With his pugnacious personality, deep-rooted hatred of black people, and chip on his shoulder, Mike provides Reverend Kennedy with a trial worthy of Job.
As a character study of Mike, Burden is uneven. At times, his redemption feels forced. One aspect that rings true, however, is his difficulty leaving the Klan. Even as he begins to doubt their core values, he has difficulty shaking off the sense of camaraderie, family, and belonging that comes with their society. Turning his back on them means shutting himself off from a fellowship that has defined his entire life. The film – and Garrett Hedlund’s performance – provides us with a window into this sacrifice. It also argues that the only way to see evil is from the outside. Mike may have doubts about Griffin while a member of the Klan (he defies the order to kill Reverend Kennedy) but he doesn’t see the man for who and what he is until he has experienced Kennedy’s kindness.
The commitment of the actors goes a long way toward elevating an otherwise pedestrian film. Hedlund’s recreation of Mike is that of an emotionally stunted, lumbering thug whose transformation is something to be wrestled with rather than embraced. Tom Wilkinson, who has never given a bad performance, is the embodiment of banal evil. Forest Whitaker proves that if he hadn’t been an actor, he could have been a preacher. His portrayal of Reverend Kennedy helps us to accept a man who seems too pious to be real. Not even Gandhi turned his cheek this many times.
Overall, Burden is too long and many of its beats have been appropriated from other movies about Southern racism. There’s too much reliance on clichés and too little interest in developing three-dimensional characters (outside of Mike). Subtlety is not one of writer/director Andrew Heckler’s strong suits, although one could argue that such a quality isn’t desirable in what is ultimately a parable about the redemptive power of love. Numerous secondary storylines, such as the anger of the town’s younger generation, are left unfinished. In fact, while Mike’s story has an arguably unearned climax (a rousing speech following a baptism), it feels like a lot has been left untold – even the captions and documentary footage preceding the end credits don’t answer all the questions. For all his passion to tell this story, Heckler doesn’t seem sure of the best way to conclude it.
Burden (United States/Canada, 2018)
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Tom Wilkinson, Andrea Riseborough, Crystal Fox, Usher Raymond
Screenplay: Andrew Heckler
Cinematography: Jeremy Rouse
Music: Dickon Hinchcliffe
U.S. Distributor: 101 Studios