Movie Review: Blood feuds, moonshine and fire mix in “Burning Kentucky”

Filmmakers who take a shot at Southern Gothic these days have to take care to avoid the traps of tropes.

Stories set in remote Southern towns, whose residents can seem frozen in time and wrapped in caricature, can come off as parodies even under the best of intentions. And when Hollywood “types” do the storytelling, stereotypes and “hill people” cliches are the rule — and not just in horror.

Writer-director Bethany Brooke Anderson is a native Kentuckian and a University of Kentucky alumnus whose debut feature avoided none of those traps, and found a few of her own devising.

“Burning Kentucky” is a quasi-coherent and inconsequential wallow in Southern Gothic, a tale of moonshine and “Duck Dynasty” beards, of murder and revenge, small town addiction and Hazard County corruption. And from the decision to let the cast swallow much of the dialogue in subtitle-worthy under-enunciated accents, to the trite story crawling through worn-out themes, it is miscalculated Appalachian mush.

Aria (Emilie Dhir) and Wyatt (Nick McCallum) give us some sense than they’re better than their corner of Appalachia. They carry their baggage with a glimmer of hope that they might escape this hellhole. But their bond is brittle.

“We both lost our mamas the same night.”

Like most who grow up in a too-small town, they can have no secrets from each other.

“You’re the meanest man I ever met. ”

“You never met my daddy.”

Wyatt’s dad (John Pyper-Ferguson), Jaxon, is  the alcoholic sheriff in need of a haircut. He doesn’t approve of this dalliance or Aria’s “people.” And yet, somehow, he’s never met her.

Wyatt, being the sanest and soberest in his family, tries to convince junkie brother Rule (Nathan Sutton) to sober up and clean up “granny’s house,” which was never much and which he and his junky would-be country singer girlfriend (Augie Duke) have reduced to ruin. Her name is Jolene. Of course.

“Don’t you feel the weight of this place?” she asks Rule. The viewer certainly does.

Ten years have passed since the night both our young lovers lost their mothers. And through a “concerned” preacher’s (Andy Umberger) anniversary tribute and the unsentimental concern of the preacher’s son (Charlie Bewley) and the many MANY mumble/drawled, slow cigarette-prop conversations between the principals, we pick up on what went down, why Jaxon carries his grudges and what Rule is trying to narcotize out of his memory.

“Blood isn’t everythin’,” we’re told, when the contrary seems to be the guiding force for everybody else.

Flashbacks take us ten years into the past, but play like Hatfields and McCoys who brought back booby-trap knowledge from service in Vietnam. We see no still and hear no banjoes, which is a relief.

Moonshine is a subtext and heroin is another, when the movie would have been better served addressing the opioid (pill) or meth issues of rural America.

Anderson was going for an Appalachian “Winter’s Bone,” after a fashion — with mostly local actors and timeworn Appalachian addictions — booze, guns and revenge.

What she ended up with is a movie you feel “the weight of” rather than comprehend, and even at that, with all the long pauses and quiet, unfriendly conversations over smokes, it’s of no consequence whatsoever.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: violence, drug abuse, nudity, profanity

Cast:  John Pyper-Ferguson, Emilie Dhir, Nick McCallum, Nathan Sutton, Andy Umberger, Charlie Bewley and Augie Duke

Credits: Written and directed by Bethany Brooke Anderson. A Snowfort production on Tubi and other free streaming platforms.

Running time: 1:31

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