“Burden,” a based-on-fact drama that won Sundance’s 2018 U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, is intent on delivering a passionate message about the power of love to defeat hate, and it does.
But there’s another lesson to be learned here, about the power of potent, committed acting to elevate material past where it would otherwise go. Without that second dynamic in place, “Burden” wouldn’t be nearly as effective as it is.
A small independent film released early in the year by the relatively new 101 Studios, “Burden” is unlikely to make a splash when awards season kicks in.
Which is all the more reason for fans of transformative acting to catch it now for the splendid performances of Garrett Hedlund and Andrea Riseborough. Though other gifted actors (Forest Whitaker, Tom Wilkinson, Crystal Fox) do strong work, it is Hedlund and Riseborough who really make things happen.
“Burden” has been a longtime passion project for first time writer-director Andrew Heckler, who felt so committed to the story it tells that he never lost faith in the script he began working on in 1999.
Detailing how a committed Ku Klux Klan grand dragon came to abandon racism and then need the help of the African American minister who has been his sworn enemy, “Burden’s” narrative is so unlikely it needs that memorable acting to bring it alive.
As a first-time filmmaker, Heckler is not always able to avoid standard situations, but he has shrewdly decided to take the time to ground his story in its very specific atmosphere, to reveal the texture of its reality, before the central drama kicks in.
The year is 1996 in small-town Laurens, S.C., and Mike Burden (Hedlund) is introduced with a group of friends doing some demolition in the Echo, the long derelict local movie house. Yes, something new is coming he tells the curious, just wait and see.
After the demo, we see Mike at his ease among his companionable close friends, including Tom Griffin (Wilkinson), who has been something of a father to him.
We also see Mike working for Griffin as a repo man for a local rent to own, repossessing televisions and the like when people fall behind in their payments.
Though usually unbending about special dispensations, Mike is struck when Judy Harbeson (Riseborough), a single mom with big hair, expresses sadness that her young son Franklin (Taylor Gregory) will not be able to watch NASCAR races on the weekend and arranges for her to keep her TV.
Paralleling these quotidian doings, we see another side to Mike, Tom and their friends and families. They are virulent racists, powers in the local Ku Klux Klan, and the project they are taking on in the former Echo theater is a business they call the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum.
This endeavor infuriates Lauren’s activist minster, the Rev. David Kennedy (Whitaker) of the New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church, a man who believes “perfect love cancels out fear.”
As Mike and Judy get closer, his allegiance to the Klan bothers her more and more, and when he has to choose between her and the racists, the consequences of his decision ends up causing a crisis of conscience for not only himself and Judy but for the reverend and his family.
“I love your heart,” Kennedy’s wife, Janice (a moving Crystal Fox), tells him, “but I’m not sure I share your faith in man.”
Largely true though it is, “Burden’s” story sounds so fantastical that it’s hard to imagine it absent the superb gifts of the chameleon-like Riseborough (best known for “Birdman”) and, most of all, Hedlund in the starring role.
A powerful, persuasive actor known for his all-in work in films like “On the Road” and “Mudbound,” Hedlund has found a way to raise what he does to a higher level here.
Using all his resources, Hedlund has created Mike Burden whole on screen in all his tormented awkwardness. Confused and conflicted, incapable of doing the right thing without recidivism and backsliding, this is hardly a conventional hero. Siding with the angels can seem like a snap in films, but “Burden” has the grace to show how difficult and wrenching a choice that can be.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 28, in general release