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Not all "Based on a true story" films are created equal, as it takes a steady hand to tell a story based in reality in a manner that looks good on the big screen. While there’s always a danger of going overboard with dramatic tension with a movie like writer/director Andrew Heckler’s Burden, there’s also a certain expectation for such notes to be included in the name of the cinematic experience.
Unfortunately, while Heckler’s telling of the true story of Mike Burden and his departure from the Ku Klux Klan is a good-hearted film that doesn’t go too hard on the more unsavory aspects we’ve seen oft repeated in stories of this ilk, there’s no sense of urgency that drives this story. What remains is an inspirational story of redemption that just kind of plays out merely for the sake of doing so.
In 1996, Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) goes from being a loyal member of the KKK to abandoning their cause practically overnight. Leaving what was once like a family to him, he finds himself, his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), and her son ostracized from their rural community in the deep South.
With his former father figure (Tom Wilkinson) firmly turned against him, Mike and those he loves find solace in the most unexpected of figures: black Baptist Reverend David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker). Taken in by Kennedy and his reluctant family, the former Klansman learns how to move on from hate, and into a new way of living.
The story behind Burden could have made for compelling drama.
Even in the most routine of circumstances, Burden feels like a story that was primed to become a drama that could have contended during an awards season push. It has all the hallmarks of a redemption arc that sees a formerly hateful person slowly growing into more tolerant.
The performances at the heart of Burden only further cement that promise, as Garrett Hedlund and Andrea Riseborough’s tender love story contrasts Mike’s battle with his abusive and hateful past. While the drama doesn’t always work in Andrew Heckler’s narrative, the cast of the film helps to move the story to a certain extent.
Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of KKK leader Tom Griffin also lands particularly well, as he walks the line between the hateful nature of his character and the paternalistic nurturing he provided Mike in the absence of the younger man's own father. What could easily be a stock snarling bigot role is played with a blend of nuance and menace.
Burden’s pacing and focus rob the narrative of any dramatic urgency.
Possessing the sort of inspirational true story that Burden does would normally give anyone adapting such a story a leg up in building the structure of tension and redemption that this story requires. Even with those advantages built in, though, there’s a lack of pacing and focus that slows Burden down to an absolute crawl.
While we see plenty of Mike Burden’s routine, and how it’s eventually broken by Reverend Kennedy, the two halves of the story don’t organically meet. Most of the focus is trained on Garrett Hedlund’s Mike, as he adjusts to his new life, but there are moments where the protests and eventual rehabilitation on the part of Reverend Kennedy intersect with the events of Burden.
By time the story of Mike’s time with Reverend Kennedy really becomes significant, we’ve already been focused on his life for so long that it feels like a rushed resolution. Another plotline with a former childhood friend, played by Usher Raymond, only further confuses the focus of Burden, as that part of the story doesn’t really go anywhere, acting as more of an accent rather than an attribute.
Its heart is in the right place, but Burden is a turgid true story.
Without a proper sense of pacing or dramatic urgency, the true story of Burden drags. While it is refreshing that the usual narrative shorthand is replaced by a more artistic approach, and shepherded by performances that help enrich the material at hand, the movie still loses something in translation.
Rather than operating with too little story, there are too many threads present that don’t connect into one singular message by time things wrap up. It’s rather unfortunate, as the cast assembled in Burden show their unique talents to the best of their abilities, in hopes of raising the story to a higher lefel.
It’ll take a bit of patience to make your way through Burden, even if you’re a loyal fan of true stories that could have the power to inspire change in the world. It’s important to keep telling such stories as the one on display in this particular movie, as they maintain relevance in the modern era. Sadly, this isn’t one of the genre’s better examples, as the factors that break in Burden’s favor are overridden by the trappings of its execution.