Review by Sean Boelman
After winning the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Sundance Film Festival two years ago, Andrew Heckler’s true-story drama Burden is finally making its way to cinemas. With a conventional but mostly effective script, this is the type of crowd-pleasing film that audiences will eat up despite its flaws.
The movie tells the story of Mike Burden, a former Ku Klux Klan member who leaves the organization’s ranks, seeking help from a socially active minister that he was once ordered to kill. This results in a relatively basic redemption arc, complete with all of the trials and tribulations the protagonist must face before re-entering society as a changed man.
Although it is understandable why audiences connect with a story about someone overcoming hate to redeem themselves, these stories are becoming increasingly common in Hollywood and have been done in more unique ways than Burden. Ultimately, the film ends up feeling more apologetic than earnest, hoping to explain away years of persecution with the simple message that people can change.
One of the movie’s biggest issues is that it takes too long for the film to get to its main conflict. About half of the movie is spent with Burden as he is still in the KKK, and too little of that time is devoted to showing his doubt. Although it is obvious that the film does not support the racist beliefs and actions of the KKK, it takes a long time before it outright condemns them too.
The movie is also too reliant on the audience’s assumptions or existing knowledge in terms of character development. Going in, it’s obvious that this is going to be a story of redemption, so viewers will find Burden’s story compelling even when he is doing some indisputably awful things. This is not the most effective way of going about a story like this.
Garrett Hedlund gives a career-best performance in his leading role with a turn that feels like obvious awards bait. Hopefully he won’t get typecast as the racist with a good heart like other actors who have given performances of this caliber before. The supporting cast, including Andrea Riseborough, Forest Whittaker, and Tom Wilkinson, is very strong. Usher Raymond also makes an appearance, but is severely underused.
On a technical level, Heckler’s film is entirely competent, which is good given the fact that this is his directorial debut, but it could have used some more ambition. With the script playing it so safe too often, it would have been nice to see Heckler take some more risks in the director's chair. Regardless, the lowest common denominator in technical achievement is met.
Burden certainly isn’t as revolutionary as it seems to hope to be, and it has all of the problems characteristic of the redemption arc. However, there is a reason why these stories continue to find their way onto the screen, and that is because they do a good job at restoring the viewer’s hope in humanity.
Burden is now playing in theaters.