Written and Directed by Andrew Heckler.
Starring Garrett Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough, Forest Whitaker, Tom Wilkinson, Usher Raymond, Tess Harper, Anna Colwell, Austin Hébert, Dexter Darden, William Walker, Taylor Gregory, Crystal Fox, Jason Davis, Tia Hendricks, Jeff Pope, Joshua Burge, and Charles Green.
When a museum celebrating the Ku Klux Klan opens in a South Carolina town, the idealistic Reverend Kennedy strives to keep the peace even as he urges the group’s Grand Dragon to disavow his racist past.
Even for someone such as myself that doesn’t come in with knives already sharpened to tear apart yet another movie about a Klansman finding redemption and how evil racism is, Burden (which is actually based on a true story from the 90s, taking me by utter surprise considering some stretches later on in the film felt entirely forced and unbelievable) never works its way into a compelling groove. It’s just a series of walking clichés for the narrative comprised of characters equally basic, which begs the question how the hell writer and director Andrew Heckler took an inspiring piece of real-life redemption (and a story that the world could use right about now) and spat out something that feels like fiction.
No joke, when the protagonist was revealed to be named Mike Burden I actually rolled my eyes trying to pinpoint why anyone would select such an on-the-nose name (this was obviously before I became aware that the film is based on historical events from the typical pre-ending credits archival footage). At the very least, Andrew Heckler has a stellar ensemble to be grateful for, starting with a lead performance from Garrett Hedlund that is nonstop jittery, explosive, and filled with inner conflict that, unfortunately for the eponymous Mike Burden, he doesn’t have a big enough brain to fully sort out those feelings on whether to take a stand and walk away from the KKK to start a new life with his budding romantic interest Judy (Andrea Riseborough).
It’s actually one of the more frustrating elements of the film because we are watching a character that we want to find empathy for, but it’s certainly a struggle whether it be due to some of his violent actions toward the black community, his offputting unchecked anger, and the length of time it takes him to actually walk away from these hate-filled nut jobs (Tom Wilkinson portrays the KKK leader of the local Laurens, South Carolina branch, fire-spitting nothing but racial epithets and vile ideologies as his reprehensible brotherhood transitions a former theater into the Redneck KKK Museum, an undertaking that bolsters their white rage). Nothing is subtle here and everyone plays the archetype you would expect them to.
Bringing things back around to Andrea Riseborough’s Judy, she is easily the best character in the film and absolutely unrecognizable (I knew she was in the movie before turning it on but I still had to double-check online who she was playing, because she genuinely looks like she walked out of a time machine from the 1990s and absolutely nothing like we have ever seen before). Even if it’s annoying that her purpose basically boils down to the beautiful woman that turns Mike’s ice-cold heart for black people into something more compassionate, changing his entire worldview, she’s fully committed to the performance as she gives him ultimatums that it’s her or the Klan, or urges him to be around not only her son, but his black friend.
The same can be said for Forest Whitaker as a Reverend with a bottomless pit of compassion and forgiveness. In many ways, Burden would probably a much more engrossing film if it stuck with his character as he tries to balance caring for his own family and giving this hardcore racist chance after chance to try changing. At one point, he lets Mike and Judy sleep in his own son’s room, which seems like a plot point that should last longer than all of five minutes. It certainly would be far more riveting than another look at the ways racist communities support one another and create a twisted sense of family that’s nigh impossible to escape. That’s not to say that it’s not well done, but it’s beginning to feel played out
That’s the problem with Burden; it knows its end goal and we are all turned in as to how things are going to turn out. It’s not really concerned with diving deeper into these people as characters, just going from point to plot point along the path of redemption, all while making the mistake that assuming getting together a talented cast and dialing their tics up to 11 is enough to salvage a messy script with low-energy direction. The real burden is on whoever buys a ticket.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com