The novel kick to Ian Olds’ moody small town mystery drama “Burn Country” is its viewpoint, that of an Afghan journalist transplanted to an eccentric burg in Northern California. Chatty, curious Osman (Dominic Rains), crashing at the home of his American war correspondent colleague’s mother (Melissa Leo), is a go-getter type eager to make his mark as a crime reporter for the local paper.
It’s a nifty set-up, reversing the fish-out-of-water scenario of so many movies that drop Westerners in foreign lands. But the intrigue that’s laid out, starting with the local rascal (James Franco) he befriends and a hit-and-run that stirs a backwoods crime family, rarely gets any hotter than a simmer, while a protracted flirtation with a boho actress (Rachel Brosnahan) feels like an extended tease.
There’s plenty of intelligence and atmosphere in play here — Adam Newport-Berra’s fluid, textured cinematography is a standout, and the performances, especially Rains’ charismatic portrait of someone scarred yet innocent, are engaging.
But the prevailing tone is of pressure applied and nothing released, a genre exercise that plays as educational rather than exhilarating. That’s especially true in the final act, when believability is strained so that the climax can belabor the repeatedly established point that for a “fixer” like Osman, being a tribal whisperer in one land doesn’t mean you can readily navigate the cultural quirks of another.
1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Monica Film Center, Santa Monica