The most consequential current faith-based movie, a film built on Christian themes of redemption, forgiveness, turning the other cheek and righteousness, is rated R.
“Burden” is not a “family” picture, and a whole lot of faith-based film fans will skip it and opt for the reassuring weepy pablum of “I Still Believe.” Which is a crying shame.
While both films are flawed, with “Burden” winning the “heavy-handed” and “sermonizing” sweepstakes, it’s still a movie of real life conflict and moral heft. It’s a film of good performances and moral consequence.
Garrett Hedlund is Mike Burden, a brawny, working class Laurens, S.C. brute who loves his “biker rock” (Lynyrd Skynyrd, et al) and his band of brothers. Those are Ku Klux Klansmen, in Mike’s case.
He’s a repo man with a soft spot for a single mom (Andrea Riseborough) about to lose her TV. But he’s racist to his very soul. An old high school classmate (Usher Raymond) gets no such “slack.”
That’s because Mike has all but been adopted by his KKK mentor, local businessman and racist provocateur Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson). Mike pit-crews on Tom’s dirt-track racing team, and is expert at winding burlap around the crosses Tom likes to burn at his KKK rallies.
And Mike is on the demo/restoration crew Tom puts to work on Laurens’ long-empty movie theater, the Echo. Tom’s got a surprise for 27% of South Carolina’s population. He’s turning that theater into The Redneck KKK Museum. Just because he can.
“Tell the god—-d NAACP this HERE’s the new capital” of S.C., he drawls.
Activist minister Rev. Kennedy (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker) spends too much of his time mediating racial injustice at the retail level already. We meet him as he’s helping a black woman get a refund at that discount store where the employees wear blue vests and the white ones think nothing of mistreating black customers.
The last thing he needs is that old, once-segregated theater, reopening as a “museum” for the terrorizing of our community.”
This isn’t a piece of ancient history. It happened in 1996, and actor-turned-writer/director Andrew Heckler lays on the hate, the racism and the violence to underscore the schism this community of working poor — black and white — live with.
Mike’s quite to anger, eager to join in on intimidating and assaulting black folks. But he’s sweet on Judy, and in her he and we see the promise of a story of redemption.
Riseborough (“The Grudge” and TV’s “zeroZerozero”), a British actress of almost unmatched range, makes Judy a rawboned, big-haired gum-snapper with earthy sex appeal, instantly attracted to Mike but leery of his KKK connections. She may put up with it, but there’s an implied side-eye in every little hint of racism from him or his Neanderthal Grand Wizard father-figure.
Her little boy is best friends with a little black kid. Mike’s Road to Damascus begins when he offers to take her kid fishing, and little Franklin’s best friend Dwayne gets to tag along.
It’s harder to hate a child, especially a sweet-spirited one.
Rev. Kennedy’s daily protests dent the museum’s business. But stopping that and changing Mike are a long, torturous row to hoe in “Burden.”
Whitaker is perfectly at ease playing a character who is both symbol and flesh-and-blood husband and father, trying to keep his own son from meeting violence with violence.
Wilkinson tears into his businessman bigot, a racist’s racist who may be smart enough to realize his minions are absolute morons, but at least they’re putty in his hands.
“They got the Martin Luther King Museum, they got the Jew Museum,” he roars. Now, he says, “the Chosen People…fighting for God’s Will for racial purity,” will have a place where they can see a Confederate sword and get their picture taken in a white KKK robe.
Exit through the gift shop, y’all.”
Hedlund plays Mike as borderline unhinged, which makes the redemption story something of a hard sell. Even at two hours, Mike’s “gradual” transformation still seems abrupt.
But Riseborough is the film’s Voice of Reason, a struggling, broke white working class Southerner who has done the math. What’s hundreds of years of racism gotten them? Dead-end lives in a one-water-tank town in the armpit of S.C.
“What, you gonna drive all the Blacks outta Laurens? We’ll still be white trash, with no one to step on to make us feel better!”
Writer-director Heckler scripts some good speeches, delivers a doozy of a surprise-twist ending and does a terrific job at hiding the movie’s purpose and Mike and Tom’s actions in the opening scenes.
When we see what The Echo is being turned into, Heckler makes that moment a real slap in the face.
The cross-burning is nicely paralleled with Rev. Kennedy’s bonfire-side sermon about all the black churches burned and bombed throughout the South over the years.
But the movie dawdles, drags and hammers home its points, over-emphasizing the violence. t’s as subtle as the tools Mike uses to demolish walls in the theater they’re turning into a museum. Black people’s mistrust of Mike’s “conversion” makes them the proxies for the audience here. We don’t buy it.
The lump in the throat “see the light” moments aren’t nearly as powerful as they were in the similar period piece “Best of Enemies” from last year.
“Burden” is still a movie of faith with more virtues than failings, more ambition than merely pandering and more topicality than we’d care to admit.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, and language throughout including racial epithets
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Garrett Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wilkinson, Usher Raymond
Credits: Written and directed by Andrew Heckler. A 101 Studios release.
Running time: 1:57