Sometimes, a performance doesn’t give the slightest hint of looking like acting.
That’s what we see when veteran character actor Wendell Pierce, of “Treme” and “Chicago P.D.” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” steps into the spotlight and behind the pulpit in “Burning Cane.”
He calls, “Let the church say AMEN” as if he’s been doing it all his life, as if he could do it half-drunk, or grieving and too depressed to get through the day without emptying his whisky flask two or three times.
Because that’s what Rev. Tillman must do, and under just those conditions. Not drunk in church, but a man staggered by the blows life has handed out. And yet, he’s still able to fluidly piece together an infamous Malcolm Forbes quote about “He who dies with the most toys, wins” and warnings about what Forbes found to be the truth when he “crossed over Jordan,” joining Proverbs 18:24 and a hymn into an impressive sermon for a rural Louisiana church he can see, from his vantage point, is dying.
New Orleans filmmaker Phillip Youmans’ film is a portrait of a place and a few of its people at an interdeterminate time. Suffering, and the alcohol that doesn’t really salve it, ties the stories together, as does the church.
It’s an impressionistic, incomplete and indulgent film of strong performances, Deep South soliloquies, of the folks there, captured in extreme closeups or glimpsed in shadows, coping with a world so suffocating that merely leaving them to their devices feels like a prison sentence.
“Cane country” rarely has been brought to such vivid life in a film.
“Burning Cane” begins with a five and a half minute interior monologue from Helen (Karen Kaia Livers of “Treme”), going into Bubba Gump detail of all the home remedies she’s tried to cure her beloved dog Jojo’s mange.
Helen’s son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) drowns his work/guilt over abusing his wife/you-name-it sorrows straight from the bottle, and insists that his son of about ten (Braelyn Kelly) share the bottle with him as they stagger-dance to Robert Johnson’s “Hot Tamales (They’re Red Hot).”
Youmans treats us to almost the entire song, another big chunk of screen time in a thinly-plotted tale that only has 78 minutes to play out — with credits.
Helen’s motherly advice is for everybody, starting with her son — “It’s hard to dance with the Devil on your back.” — but including the pastor, who needs to give up the wheel of his 1974 BMW if he needs to get to the Piggly Wiggly.
“You don’t think I can hold my liquor…The Good Lord is looking out for me!”
She worries over them all, frets over her dog and suggests “the Lord” might help — eventually — even as she, like the preacher and everybody else, lapses into profanity at the burdens they’re all carrying.
“Burning Cane” has great regional cinema bonafides, a bit of film festival hype and the rhythm of poetry in its images, human connections, monologues and gloom.
Which is to say as prose, it isn’t all that. Vignettes can add up to a wholly realized film, but in this case, they tell the tale but don’t quite complete the story.
Pierce and the sermon he is delivering, intercut throughout “Burning Cane,” stick with you, a performance that transcends vignettes and makes an even stronger impression than the forlorun, overcast images that prophesy doom, or at least a purgatory no one here will escape without scars.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, alcohol abuse, smoking, implied violence, profanity
Cast: Wendell Pierce Karen Kaia Livers, Dominique McClellan and Braelyn Kelly
Credits: Written and directed by Phillip Youmans. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:18