A high-ranking Klansman quits the KKK and embarks on a path of love and nonviolence, guided by the African-American minister he was once prepared to kill, in “Burden.” Neither dud nor gem, this fact-based drama’s terrific story is presented with a heavy-hand and superficially.
Operating with noble intentions and a vivid mood palette, first-time filmmaker Andrew Heckler has dramatized the real-life journey of Mike Burden (played by Garrett Hedlund), a Ku Klux Klan member in small-town South Carolina in 1996. The Klan, in which he’s achieved Grand Dragon status, is like family to Burden, who was orphaned when young. He works as a repo man for the group’s local leader, Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson), who treats him like a son.
In an early scene, Tom and company unveil their Redneck Store and KKK Museum, where they proudly fly a Confederate flag.
Appalled, African-American church minister and social-justice advocate David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) begins holding daily protests outside the establishment. One day, when a protest gets a bit heated, Tom sends Burden to the roof with a rifle, instructing him to take care of things. Burden, indicating to us that he’s decent at heart, doesn’t shoot.
Heckler’s message is that hate is a learned mind-set that can be unlearned. For Burden, that redemption begins with Judy Harbeson (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother Burden meets when repossessing her TV.
Judy has a young son named Franklin (Taylor Gregory), a low-paying cashier job, and an aversion to racism. Still, she dates Burden, a known Klansman.
When his ties to the Klan begin affecting her son, Judy gives him an ultimatum. When Burden chooses Judy and rejects the Klan, Tom responds harshly and vindictively.
Kennedy reenters Mike’s life, acting as his ally. Believing that love and faith can heal even violent haters, he makes Burden’s redemption his mission.
The film fares best when depicting Klan mentalities and when Heckler, who has a thoughtful quality, reveals humanity amid the hate.
The interior of the KKK Museum, with its displays of racist objects, is sickeningly creepy, while a Klan cookout has a discomfortingly friendly and homey vibe. There’s also a cross-burning.
Heckler makes clear that, while set in 1996, the ugliness in the movie hasn’t gone away.
Overall, however, the film is yet another fact-based drama whose real-life heroes deserve a better movie.
Heckler presents Burden’s journey simplistically. The Burden-Kennedy bond, which should be complicated, thorny and riveting, gets superficial treatment, as does Burden’s relationship with Judy. Kennedy and Judy come across as saintly saviors. Burden’s relationship with Tom, too, needs deeper consideration.
Largely, the characters suggest cliches: the good woman, the decent, forgiving man of God, the troubled, tainted lost soul who needs saving.
The talented cast, including the usually excellent Riseborough and Whitaker, isn’t stirring. Wilkinson’s Tom — a manipulative monster beneath a demeanor whose fatherly element the actor makes scarily real — emerges as the most compelling character. Hedlund strives to make Burden, whom he’s given a robotic swagger, a challenging, multifaceted protagonist, but the results are hit-and-miss.
And Usher Raymond, who plays a former schoolmate Burden uncomfortably encounters during a repo job, deserves more screen time.
Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough, Forest Whitaker, Tom Wilkinson
Written and directed by: Andrew Heckler
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
“Incitement,” too, features a real-life hater — nonredemptive, in this case. The Israeli thriller tells the story of ultranationalist and religious extremist Yigal Amir, who, in 1995, killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, deeming his Israeli-Palestinian peace deal traitorous. Opening Friday at the Opera Plaza, the film is an overdetailed but engrossing portrait of an ideological assassin and a powerful condemnation of fanaticism.
Directed and cowritten by Yaron Zilberman (“A Late Quartet”), the well-researched story unfolds from the killer’s perspective while embracing Rabin’s peace effort. It transpires in a divided Israel: On one side are liberals and secular Jews; on the other are nationalists and those who believe religious law should rule the land.
Amir (Yehuda Nahari Halevi), a law student and devout Orthodox Jew with Yemeni-Israeli parents, falls into the latter category. Introduced in 1993 — when Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat sign the Oslo I peace accord (Zilberman adroitly integrates footage of this and other news events into the drama) — Amir clashes with his peace-supporting father (Amitay Yaish Ben Ousilio), whom he disparagingly calls a “diaspora Jew.”
Amir’s mother (Anat Ravnizky), meanwhile — problematically, Zilberman suggests — believes that Amir will do something great for Judaism.
Amir also has a noncommittal girlfriend, Nava (Daniella Kertesz), and a useful ability to charm cops.
Furious about the peace accord, Amir attends rabidly anti-Rabin rallies — speakers include opposition politician (and current prime minister) Benjamin Netanyahu — and denounces Rabin as a traitor. Amir especially despises the part of the accord that would give Palestinians land that he believes belongs to Israel by divine right.
Assisted by an army buddy (Dolev Ohana) and other cohorts, Amir acquires weapons and conducts religious retreats. He aims to form a militia that will do what the Israeli military won’t.
He pores over old Jewish texts, fixating on the “pursuer” law described therein. Hoping it will permit him to murder Rabin, Amir consults conservative rabbis. The rabbis don’t sanction such a killing, but they don’t say whoa, either.
Revved up and grandeur-deluded, Amir interprets their response as authorization. On Nov. 4, 1995, at a rally attended by Rabin in Tel Aviv, Amir deceives a security man and does the deed. The peace process dies with Rabin.
As a suspense thriller, the movie fares so-so. While Israeli audiences may appreciate its abundance of historical facts and mini-theories about personal factors that may have contributed to Amir’s unhinging — a romantic breakup, bias against Yemeni Jews, Amir’s mother’s statements about Amir’s destiny — the density of detail in Zilberman and cowriter Ron Leshem’s screenplay leaves little room for thrills.
Not the nimblest director, Zilberman provides no breathing space, lightness or levity. (Exception: an amusing remark about “Crocodile Dundee 2.”)
But the never dull film merits attention as a critical look, through an Israeli lens, at the political divide that has prevented Israel from making progress toward peace. It also addresses the terrible consequences of ideologies that put nationalist interests and religious law above humanity and democracy.
Wisely, Zilberman and lead actor Halevi don’t portray Amir empathetically.
Halevi’s Amir keeps viewers hooked, however. Sporting a smile both charismatic and chilling, he captivatingly demonstrates how political and religious extremism can turn a passionate activist into a murderous madman.
Starring: Yehuda Nahari Halevi, Amitay Yaish Ben Ousilio, Anat Ravnizky, Daniella Kertesz
Written by: Yaron Zilberman, Ron Leshem
Directed by: Yaron Zilberman
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes