BURDEN – Review
In this strange but true story, Garrett Hedlund plays a young white man is persecuted after leaving the Ku Klux Klan he was raised in but finds shelter with a forgiving black reverend (Forest Whitaker) in BURDEN.
The title hints at various meanings, although it is also the last name of the person at the center of this inspiring drama. A strong, nuanced performance by Garrett Hedlund adds greatly to director Andrew Heckler’s true story-inspired drama about redemption and compassion, In fact, the film benefits in many ways from an impressive cast, including Forest Whitaker, Tom Wilkinson, Andrea Riseborough and Usher Raymond, each of whom give affecting performances in this tale of human transformation.
Garrett plays Mike Burden, a young man abandoned by his abusive parents and raised by Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), the powerful leader of a branch of the KKK in a small Southern town in the 1990s. Mike is intensely loyal to Griffin, who regards Mike as a son, and Mike becomes Griffin’s right hand man as he rises to the position of Grand Dragon in the Klan. Tom Griffin is also Mike’s employer, in his repo business for a local rent-to-own shop.
When Tom Griffin buys the local shuttered movie theater, he transforms the space into a museum dedicated to the KKK, with an attached gift shop of Klan and Confederate merchandise called the Redneck Shop. Appalled by Griffin’s boldness of opening this racist establishment, the town’s activist African American preacher Rev. David Kennedy (Whitaker) organizes protests outside the Redneck shop.
Mike is right there at Griffin’s side but in his work as a repo man, he meets both two people who change the direction of his life. One a brave young single mother, Judy (Andrea Riseborough), with whom he falls in love, and the other is a former childhood friend, a black man named Clarence (Usher Raymond).
The film does a nice job of capturing a sense of time and place, and Hedlund and Riseborough add some nice believable touches to their impoverished rural characters. Reconnecting with Clarence and falling in love with Judy sets Mike on a new path. When they first meet, Judy is unaware of Mike’s Klan , and balks when she finds out, as her son’s best friend is Clarence’s son. Torn between his love of Judy and loyalty to Griffin, Mike is forced to take a hard look at his violent life and his long-held racist beliefs.
When Mike finally decides to leave the Klan, the Klan retaliate. He and Judy suddenly find themselves homeless and unemployed, reduced to begging, when Rev. Kennedy encounters them. He buys them a meal, and then brings them home, much to the horror of his own wife and son. The situation puts them all in danger and sets them on path of confrontation with Tom Griffin and the Klan.
Dramatically, not everything works in this story, but the fine performances of all the cast elevate the film over its flaws. Hedlund brings out layers and complexities in the character that help make this drama more than the heart-tugging, inspiring message film it is at heart. Hedlund’s fine performance take us inside the head of this young man, grateful to the man who virtually adopted him and showed him the affection his parents did not, while indoctrinating him into the Klan’s culture of hate. The actor peels back Mike’s hard armored shell, as we see him changed by the power of love and kindness. A moving scene gives insight into the evolution of the character, when he encounters a curious young deer, and then talks with Judy about his memories of his brutal father speaks volumes about the forces that made him into the violent thug he seemed at first, while revealing the potential for human warmth underneath
At the same time, Hedlund is aided by strong performances by all the cast. Forest Whitaker’s reverend is a man who almost has a compulsion for kindness, sometimes neglecting his own family in his commitment to his work, while still giving the character a sincerity and personal warmth the way Whitaker always does so well. Tom Wilkinson is likewise excellent, as the charismatic but violent Griffin, charming and manipulating Mike into joining him in his hatreds. Andrea Riseborough delivers a nice performance as a young woman beaten down in life but refusing to give up on hope. Usher Raymond, in the smaller role of Clarence, exudes an air of human warmth and serves as a voice of reason and normalcy that steadies the volatile Mike.
The true story is inspiring but it is the powerful acting that makes the film so affecting. The film ends with footage of the real people behind this unusually tale, and an update on the aftermath.
BURDEN opens Friday, March 13.
RATING: 3 out of 4 stars