Love is an exceptionally powerful emotion. While hard to explain in rational terms, the feeling of warmth and acceptance one gets when madly in love can cause men to move mountains. Never underestimate the lengths people will go to defend those they hold close.
On the flip side, hate is also an incredibly powerful emotion. Often born from fear, hatred of another can cause otherwise gentle and caring people to do some heinous things. Theft, murder, assault: these actions are all born from irrational beliefs that one is superior to another. Sometimes they just happen because a person doesn’t know any better.
Burden, a film chronicling the true story of a reformed KKK member, tackles these emotions head-on and shows how easy it can be to manipulate an average person into a menace to society. It also shows how love can conquer everything…once it actually gets to the damn point.
Director: Andrew Heckler
Release Date: February 28, 2020
Let me preface this review by saying you should avoid plot summaries for Burden. While the background of the story is that of a violent man finding a woman and changing his ways, that plot doesn’t pick up until roughly 65% of the way through the film. I was very confused when the first hour covered everything that wasn’t related to a lost dog returning home. Try to look for the big picture, even if the film doesn’t bother with that.
Opening in 1996 South Carolina, we see a bunch of men demoing a building with the hopes of reopening it to the public. With some Southern Rock blaring, we learn that Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) is working for a repo company and doesn’t necessarily like taking things from people. After cutting a deal with a lovely woman named Judy (Andrea Riseborough), he heads back to this shop and we see the ugly truth.
Mike and his buddies have just renovated the first museum dedicated to the history of the KKK.
I completely understand what the beginning of the film is going for here. As I said in my opening paragraphs, Mike really isn’t that bad of a person. When he’s away from his fellow Klansmen, Mike is peaceful and just wants the best for those around him. A romance blossoms between Mike and Judy and Mike even takes to her child.
When following the KKK, though, Mike is impulsive, spiteful, and violent. He drops racial slurs, talks about how evil black people are, and wishes only to please his adoptive father, the Grand Dragon Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson). He’s seemingly blinded by the hatred that Tom has let into his life.
While all of this is going down, we’re also given a short glimpse into the life of Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker). A pastor that preaches the power of love, he becomes utterly disgusted at the sight of the KKK museum opening in his town. He immediately goes home to pray and this eventually sends him down a path of confrontation with the Klan.
The thing with Burden is…there’s an awful lot of setup here. I understand this film is based on a true story -Mike Burden, Judy, and Reverend Kennedy really did go through his hardship in 1996-, but nothing of consequence happens for a majority of the run time. The film definitely shows us that Mike isn’t truly evil, but it takes its sweet time getting to the heart of this story.
There’s a bunch of details in the film’s official descriptions that seem to be completely absent from the final movie. Apparently Mike was appointed as the Grand Dragon of his local klan, but I don’t even remember seeing that. Tom Griffin supposedly is this evil antagonist that looms over Mike’s life, but he’s present in maybe 15 minutes of the film. Even the Reverend is said to have doubts about Mike, but we only get a single moment where he punches his steering wheel in anger. It’s also about 20 minutes from the end of the movie.
Burden really belabors the point that its titular character isn’t bad. That’s about the gist of what I got at the end of the film. Maybe some people in modern America can’t understand that point, but there really could have been a better look at the hardships Mike faced after leaving the klan. We could have seen more of the struggles Kennedy faced for showing compassion to his previous enemy. All of these great talking points that the trailers and synopses paint as the entire film are barely present in the overall story. This really is more of a bio-drama about Mike Burden than anything.
It even sort of ends suddenly. Mike makes the tough choice, sells the museum to the Reverend, then gets beaten by his former friends. Not wishing to succumb to his previously belligerent ways, Mike lays down and drops some wisdom on Tom Griffin. Griffin makes a pretty serious threat, then the film cuts to Mike making some confessions and a text crawl that informs us he eventually found peace. Way to tease us with the more interesting movie we didn’t get.
Apart from those pacing and plotting issues, Burden isn’t that bad of a film. All of the performances are believable and I was honestly surprised by Hedlund’s turn here. I really only remember him from Tron Legacy and he was terrible in that, so Burden is a marked improvement. Riseborough isn’t really given enough time (despite being the driving force behind Mike’s change), but she brings a gentle nature to the character that helps you understand Mike’s internal conflict. Whitaker is as you’d expect: he’s not firing on all cylinders, but the man is a national treasure. He could turn literal garbage into something amazing.
Some of the writing is basic as all hell, but later quotes in the film bring some excellent depth to this story. They were obviously tailor made as trailer bait, but a very emotional story about Kennedy’s mom saving a beaten dog parallels the struggles Mike faced. It’s on the nose, but you can see some effort was put into creating a metaphor for this chaos.
Honestly, there’s not much else to truly say about Burden. The story, itself, is very poignant and something well worth telling, but this movie doesn’t seem up to the task of telling it. With an extreme amount of focus on Mike’s life before his pivotal change towards love, the movie misses the mark of what this story is all about. Love really can stare down hatred and conquer it, but there’s more nuance to life than what is captured here.