There’s a clear desire to dig into the complexities of prejudice in Burden, written and directed by Andrew Heckler and based on the true story of Mike Burden. The ambition throughout is admirable, though the execution wavers a bit in spots. Garrett Hedlund stars as the titular character, a Ku Klux Klansman living in South Carolina. He puts in work as a repo man for Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), a KKK leader and supremely evil person. Mike’s doing his best to come back from years of military service overseas, mumbling through his sentences and walking with a handful of limps and ticks. It’s a whole lot of performance from Hedlund, whose choices stay consistent and ultimately build themselves into the narrative.
When Mike finds love in single mother Judy (Andrea Riseborough, always impressive and stealing scenes), he’s forced to question the lived-in racism that’s informed him most of his life. Griffin–a father figure to Mike–is constructing a KKK museum in the center of town, much to the dismay of Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), who leads a passionate congregation driven to protest. Heckler, a former actor, makes his directorial debut with the film and appears determined to stuff everything he can into the project. To this end, it is all quite impressive. There is nothing easy about this and Heckler exudes a remarkable confidence in telling it like he does. Mike Burden is a hard person to tolerate, let alone enjoy watching for over two hours. That Heckler and Hedlund pull no punches in digging into the evils of this man speaks to their agenda.
Burden attempts to handle its hero much in the way Kennedy does: with compassion, nuance, and faith. Whitaker is perfect as this reverend, a true Christian who cannot help himself in his zeal to do good. When Mike chooses Judy over the klan, the young family loses their jobs, their home, and their friends, forced to live out of their car and beg for money. They find a helping hand in Kennedy, who ostracizes his own family and congregation by offering a roof and job to Mike, a known klansman.
One wishes the evolution of this hateful man into the light was handled with a bit more time and care. Hedlund’s doing all he can, but the film takes some dramatic shortcuts that feel a bit too cheap for its surroundings. It’s an interesting problem, given all of the time spent on this character. And yet, it remains limited in its dynamism and emotional effectiveness. Usher Raymond puts in solid work as an old friend of Mike’s and current friend of Judy’s, and Dexter Darden makes the most of his scenes as Kennedy’s conflicted son.
There’s a lot to chew on here, and if Burden is ultimately buried by its muddled central character, it’s as much a testament to the filmmaker’s refusal to sugarcoat this story as it is a criticism of the final product.
Burden premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and opens on February 28, 2020.