Burden: What a Load, by David Bax
There are few phrases more guaranteed to dampen my expectations for a movie than, “Based on a true story,” especially when it’s heralded in big type onscreen right at the beginning. The implication is that the mere truthfulness of the story is reason enough to be watching it and that the movie’s roots in facts ought to be taken into account before leveling any criticisms. It’s often a disclaimer for arrogant, lazy filmmaking. Andrew Heckler’s Burden checks those boxes and throws in “misguided” to boot.
Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) is a veteran whose possible PTSD stems from further back than the tour of duty that left him with titanium in his leg, all the way to his physically and emotionally abused childhood. But he’s been taken under the wing of local Ku Klux Klan leader Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson; the character’s name has been changed from the person on whom he is based), who has become a controlling but sturdy father figure. Burden follows Mike’s slow, halting attempts to remove himself from the Klan with the help of his girlfriend, Judy (Andrea Riseborough), and local church leader Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker).
Riseborough and Whitaker are as reliable as ever and Burden is filled out with good supporting performances by Usher, Tess Harper, Crystal Fox and others. But RADA alum Wilkinson is too patrician to convince as a South Carolina good ol’ boy and Hedlund, with whom we spend the most time by far, offers up a performance comprised of tics and a thick, fake accent.
Even if Hedlund’s performance were unassailable, though, the fact that he dominates the film is evidence of the whole project’s wrongheaded impulses. Heckler pulls an admittedly neat trick in the first act, starting by letting us get to know this poor but proud, seemingly goodhearted man–and even introducing Judy as a love interest–before revealing his Klan membership and his beliefs about race. As an illustration of the fact that racists don’t immediately announce themselves as such (which isn’t exactly news), it’s pretty effective. But, after that point, Heckler confoundingly continues to follow these narrative and character threads. After we see Burden in a Klan robe, every second of screentime spent with him feels like a sick endurance test. Who gives a fuck if the KKK guy gets the girl, especially when the girl’s reaction to learning about his affiliation is a mildly concerned look, followed by a scene of her going out to dinner with him and his Klan buddies?
Reverend Kennedy’s struggle is the more interesting one. He’s a man trying to reconcile the personal and moral repulsion he feels at Burden with a Christian duty to help a man in need. But Heckler doesn’t just privilege Burden’s story with more screen time, he also has the insulting audacity to draw parallels between the two men. A cut from Burden burning a cross to Kennedy preaching around a bonfire about bombed black churches is, in a word, offensive.
Heckler seems not to know what’s worthwhile about this true story. He doles out scenes of racial conflict the same way an action movie might dole out explosions or car chases. He seems to want to force us to face white supremacy as if we didn’t all see pale, frothy-mouthed white men carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville and murdering a counter-protester with a car. We already know how bad things are and Burden‘s suggestion that the impetus is on black Americans like Kennedy to fix the situation through compassion and tolerance is too much to bear.