Garrett Hedlund has finally won me over.
It took writer/director Andrew Heckler nearly 20 years to bring this passion project to the big screen, a film that stars the consistently and quietly rising Garrett Hedlund as the aptly named Mike Burden, a real life figure who was a KKK member who would end up leaving the Klan mostly owing to this wild thing called love, the love of a good woman and the unexpected alliance he discovered with an African-American Baptist preacher, Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), who fought for the small town of Laurens, South Carolina when its racial tensions boiled over following the opening of a KKK museum.
It would seem, perhaps, that this film called Burden is a simple film about simple men living on opposite ends of the life spectrum.
Reverend Kennedy is an almost majestic man, a man whose entire being seems to radiate love. He's a family man and a committed justice-seeker. He believes in the power of the Lord and in the power of love to change hearts and lives and perpetuated cycles.
Mike Burden's entire life is a perpetuated cycle. He seems ordinary, almost normal at times as Hedlund wraps him up tightly in an almost "aw shucks" facade that only hints at the hatred bubbling underneath the surface and the propensity for violence that is ever-present.
Of course, there's nothing particularly simple about these two men or the world in which they live. Laurens, South Carolina may be a small town but it's a complex town and the layers of institutional racism run deep and powerful. The layers of institutional violence are just as deep.
Hedlund does amazing work here and it's work I'll confess I didn't think he had in him. This is a masterful, nuanced performance yet also an uncompromising one that refuses to let any sort of redemption that Mike may get be softened or feel false. He's grown up in the Klan, really, with an abusive father and an Army tour some of the triggers for turning him into the man he's become. He makes decent money working as a repo man for Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), the de facto KKK leader whose entire presence personifies evil. He's evil, but he's good to Mike and the only semblance of a father figure he's ever really had.
It's not good, really, but Mike's standard is fairly low so it's good enough.
He meets Andrea Riseborough's Judy Harbeson while repossessing her television. She used to be like him, but she found another way and he finds her and they seem to click. He even click's with her son, showing a side of himself we're not sure even he's ever seen before. He starts to change his ways, but Tom Griffin isn't turned away from easily and if you turn away from Tom and you turn away from the Klan you pretty much risk losing everything you had and everything you've ever known.
There's a price to pay and both Heckler and Hedlund show it unflinchingly.
Burden isn't always an easy film to watch but that's exactly why it needs to be watched.
Burden isn't a flawless film. Forest Whitaker is far too gifted an actor to be saddled with a character who's so paper thin, yet Whitaker does what he can as Reverend Kennedy and manages to bring him to life convincingly anyway. There are a couple scenes that break up Burden's intensely realistic tone, arriving too abruptly and simply giving us a detour that's not needed and not cohesive with the rest of the film.
Based on an actual real life figure, Burden is Garrett Hedlund's film from beginning to end and he turns in the best performance of his life. My doubts about Hedlund's range were just plain wrong as Hedlund finds nooks and crannies and nuances of Mike that make you realize you're sympathizing with someone who's capable of impulsive evil and you're realizing that it's truly never too late for redemption though that redemption does, indeed, exact a heavy price. Hedlund is tender and truthful, frighteningly scary and often unpredictable. You simply never know where he's going to go and that's exactly as it should be. It's easily one of early 2020's best performances.
Tom Wilkinson is downright frightening as Tom Griffin, while Andrea Riseborough gives a remarkable performance and provides the film an emotional core and heart as Judy. Usher Raymond and Dexter Darden shine as supporting players.
Burden is the kind of film that feels like a burden as the closing credits roll. It's intense and raw, impossible not to see and feel as you're getting up from your chair and trying to shake the ashes of hate off your weary shoulders and breathe in Heckler's bold, imperfect yet unforgettable cinematic debut. Stephanie Hamilton's production design is simply stellar, while D.P. Jeremy Rouse manages to infuse an almost odd, immersive beauty into the film and into us all.
Burden picked up the Audience Award for Narrative Feature at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and the Best Narrative Feature prize at the Nantucket Film Festival later that same year. It's a demanding film yet a rewarding one, a burden that writer/director Andrew Heckler carried for nearly 20 years before bringing it to life and giving it to the world that needs its story.
Burden is currently on a limited arthouse release nationwide and opens in Indy on March 13th at the Landmark Keystone Art Cinema.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic