THE STORY – Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) is a taciturn repo man rising through the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan in small-town South Carolina, 1996. Orphaned as a child, he is fiercely loyal to local Klan leader and toxic father figure Tom Griffin (a terrifying Tom Wilkinson). But Burden has a change of heart when he falls for Judy (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother who stirs his social conscience. His violent break from the Klan sends him into the open arms of Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), an idealistic African American preacher, who offers him safety and a shot at redemption.
THE CAST – Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wilkinson & Usher Raymond
THE TEAM – Andrew Heckler (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 129 Minutes
By Matt N.
As I walked out of my screening of “Burden” at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, I heard rumblings that people did not like the film due to the nature of the story which revolves around a white male racist who goes on a redemption arc. It was the “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” complaint all over again, however, there were a few differences between that film and “Burden.” One is that “Burden” is based on a true story where “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is totally fictional. The second is that equal weight is given to the black characters who Mike Burden starts off the film hating due to his ideology and then slowly comes to respect and love as he learns to forgive himself for his hatred and seek penance due to the compassion and forgiveness they show him. I would argue that this redemption arc is much more complete than the one found in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and tells its message of love and forgiveness better than that film did as well. Featuring truly staggering performances from Garrett Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough and Forest Whitaker, “Burden” is not always an easy watch for its painstakingly realistic look at racism in the modern day deep south but it is an essential one if we are ever going to root it out, learn from it and move forward toward a more peaceful life.
“Burden” takes place in South Carolina in 1996 and is based on the true story of Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), a repo man southern redneck who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his town, run by his surrogate father Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson). A member of the Klan since a young age and now rising up to be its new leader someday, Mike has been brought up to have hatred in his heart but when he meets a young single mom named Judy (Andrea Riseborough) and her kid son, that hateful exterior melts away and Judy see’s him for who she believes he really is: a kind man who can protect and provide for their family. When Mike’s life with the Klan starts to penetrate Judy’s and her son’s, Judy gives Mike an ultimatum: it’s either me or the Klan. Conflicted, confused and unable to make the decision entirely on his own, it takes the reluctant spiritual guidance and support of Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), a black preacher who is protesting the Klan in his neighborhood, to help Mike see the right path and hopefully choose a better life for himself.
“Burden” is ultimately a film which tries to make an argument. That argument is that love is always greater than fear. Fear is the teaching of the Ku Klux Klan (Delivered terrifyingly by Tom Wilkinson to his followers) while love is what Reverend Kennedy teaches and practices on a daily basis, even if his family disapproves or can’t see hope where he does. Both emotions are at play with one another and wrestle inside of the soul of Mike Burden, giving Garrett Hedlund the best role of his career. I will admit that when I first discovered Garrett Hedlund (Much like Channing Tatum), I thought he was extremely limited in what he could do as an actor but with this and “Mudbound” last year, I think he has finally found what he is truly great at: playing rough and tough southern exteriors with complex interiors. The emotional difficulty of his role is quite impressive and can be felt in every gesture, line reading, facial expression and that unforgettable arm waving walk (Less so on the later but it had to be pointed out). He’s charming when he needs to be and hostile when the story calls for it. If “Mudbound” didn’t give him the Oscar push he should’ve received last year, this surely will for he is truly an emotional powerhouse of rage and confusion in “Burden.”
Hedlund’s unforgettably tormented performance is matched by Forest Whitaker who also delivers one of his finest performances as the neighborhood preacher who tries to lead Mike down the right path. Gentle, warm and loving, Forest Whitaker touches your soul with his performance even when he himself has his moments of doubt. It’s no “Last King Of Scotland” but I could make an argument as to why I think it’s right below that in terms of quality. And finally, there’s Andrea Riseborough. Sporting a messy wig, dirty and always sweaty, her performance shines through in her devotion to her son and her conflicted feelings about Mike Burden. Like Reverend Kennedy, she sees the good in him but she is also strong and wise enough to not allow Mike’s Klan life to be a part of her life or her son’s. Hers is the unsung performance of the cast who are all delivering phenomenal work and all merit awards consideration.
One quibble I have with “Burden” is that despite a steady directorial hand from Andrew Heckler, the runtime does get to be a bit too much by the end. Perhaps it was the emotional weight of the characters and the story crushing me? Either way, “Burden” presents an intricate set of characters, caught up in a difficult set of circumstances and does not advocate for anything hateful. In fact, it condemns it. One need only look at a scene in the film where the Ku Klux Klan burns down the crosses at night in a ritual we have seen displayed in cinema before and see how that is contrasted by Forest Whitaker and his church followers having a night-time fire of their own but one that they say is the “fire of love.” The personal decision audiences will face (Whether or not they themselves could forgive Mike Burden), will be a tough one and the answer may not always be easy. This will surely be an issue for some. There may be other issues with the screenplay or the length of the film but its message and performances are not to be overlooked despite the hard subject matter.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Emotionally impactful performances by Garret Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough and Forest Whitaker.
THE BAD – Overstays its welcome in its runtime with a message that starts to beat you over the head by the end. Some viewers will not be able to see past the film’s racism despite how much It condemns it.
THE FINAL SCORE – 7/10