Nothing that follows Burn Country’s jarring opening scene, which drops us without warning into an ongoing performance of an avant-garde play, quite lives up to its audacious intensity and strangeness. Still, the sequence sets the too-serious tone—relentlessly ponderous and borderline self-satirical—for the story to come.
Among those in the play’s thrall is Osman (Dominic Rains), an inquisitive Afghan guide/interpreter who has recently escaped his homeland with the help of an American reporter (James Oliver Wheatley) with whom he worked in Afghanistan. He’s since been granted asylum and is living in a coastal Northern California town with the reporter’s mother, Gloria (Melissa Leo as a weary county sheriff), whose occupation provides a perfect opportunity for Osman to satisfy his desire to continue working as a journalist. To that end, he agrees to a 50-bucks-a-week gig writing up the local newspaper’s police blotter.
When one of the locals, Lindsay (James Franco), goes missing following the death of a debt enforcer, no one seems concerned—that is, except for Osman. It’s his unquenched curiosity that drives the odd, lax noir Burn Country. With obvious pride, Osman returns to his “Afghan style” of journalism, going right to the key players, even the dangerous ones, as he did in his homeland. Stoking his determination is a lack of urgency in most everyone else’s attitude about Lindsay’s disappearance. He’s also driven by what we might call a poetic worldview: Osman sees complexities and secrets waiting to be discovered where others—including the film’s viewers—might more likely see the mundane.
Rather than city lamp posts, trees cast shadows. Instead of into dark alleyways, we’re led to dingy houses where the eccentric denizens (backwoods criminals and hippies alike) are both welcoming and evasive, though mostly uninteresting despite their eccentricities. Befitting the genre template, few of these people will give a straight answer. At one point, local New Age-y playwright Carl (an excellent Tim Kniffin) pleads to Osman, rather on the nose, “Don’t tell us too much yet.”
Burn Country is nothing if not committed to its aesthetic. Again and again, director Ian Olds pushes his camera forward ever so slowly to create a sense of unease. An ominous, droning synth score fits his mood, though a soul version of “California Dreaming” that kicks in when Osman stares at fallen leaves is more perplexing than evocative, another example of the film straining for existential weightiness. Though, thanks to sensitive work by Dominic Rains, Osman conveys naiveté, empathy and earnestness, a considerable task for an actor in just about every scene. He’s not the hard-boiled detective of classic noir, but he is a suitable conduit through which the audience can experience life’s unexpected truths, puzzles and detours.
Eventually, Osman will discover that the people he suspects are responsible for taking Lindsay don’t draw clear-cut lines of right and wrong, at least as he understands them. But this realization is one that doesn’t come until long after we’ve endured the tedium of watching Osman either walk or bike long stretches of road in his quest to understand everyone in his orbit. “I want to know you all,” he says. “How can I live here if I can’t see the bottom of things?” When Osman goes from smoking a cigarette and talking about how tough it was in Afghanistan to being shut down mere seconds later when he goes in for a kiss with Carl’s lover, it’s supposed to be another roadblock to his need for feeling a connection. But in its presentation, the rejection plays like black comedy, where the rebuff dominates the supposedly honest exchange of feelings that preceded it.
We’d have a better movie if Olds realized how much sequences like this—as well as the long looks between characters and Osman’s overwrought voiceovers—come across as parody, especially considering the flimsiness of his McGuffin. We know why Lindsay’s gone. More importantly, we don’t care that he’s gone. This is partly the fault of Franco, who plays Lindsay about as sincerely as if he were performing in an SNL skit.
Burn Country is strongest when it focuses on Osman’s need to replace the close relationships he had in Afghanistan with close relationships in his new home. A discussion he has about journalism, where he’s pressed to defend his profession, suggests many more coherent and satisfying avenues for the film to direct its focus. As things stand, Olds and cowriter Paul Felten strive for intensity without creating the circumstances that earn it. When one character asks, “Why the hell is everybody so serious?”, we wonder the exact same thing.
Director: Ian Olds
Screenwriter: Ian Olds, Paul Felten
Starring: Dominic Rains, James Franco, Melissa Leo, Rachel Brosnahan, Tim Kniffin
Release date: December 9, 2016