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Burning Man

2011 | 110 min

Burning Man


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Theatrical release date

 27 July, 2012

Country of origin

 United States



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Burning Man Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, July 28, 2012

“Burning Man” is a grueling picture to watch, yet it packs an outstanding emotional wallop despite chasing every impulse to disturb the delicate passage of profound feelings. It’s a film of editorial technique and physical distance, endeavoring to disrupt a formulaic story of self-discovery and loss in a manner that honestly infuriates as much as it captivates. It’s a bizarre approach to a study of grief, yet it maintains an originality that’s laudable. If you decide to purchase a ticket, keep in mind the first 30 minutes are designed to provoke and frustrate, testing the viewer with a chronological disorientation that never relents, requiring outsiders to simply adapt to the blur at hand.

Tom (Matthew Goode) is a man of rage, speeding through his days barking at those who dare to slow him down. A successful chef with little patience for customers, Tom takes comfort in his wife, Sarah (Bojana Novakovic, “Edge of Darkness”), and son, Oscar (Jack Heanly). When Sarah develops breast cancer, her treatment burns Tom to his core, leaving him unable to process the decline of his beloved, while caring for a son who doesn’t fully understand what’s going on. When Sarah is lost, Tom spirals downward, turning to sex with his therapist (Rachel Griffiths) and a prostitute (Kate Beahan) for comfort, yet he can’t quite reclaim his sanity, concerning Sarah’s distraught sister, Karen (Essie Davis). Desperate for peace, Tom searches in all the wrong places, threatening his relationship with Oscar, who needs a father figure in his life now more than ever.

Writer/director Jonathan Teplitzky aims to build a puzzle with “Burning Man,” taking a Ginsu to the narrative structure of the film, leaving the feature a choppy exploration of Tom’s adult life. It’s a jumbled approach announced from the opening titles, assaulting the viewer with a rush of life experiences, all out of order, keeping audiences one step behind, sifting through the evidence Teplitzky sees fit to distribute with trust that it will all piece together cleanly in the end. It’s an experimental approach and not for the unadventurous, necessitating a fierce concentration on screen details and emotional speeds, with “Burning Man” acting like a bucking bronco, determined to kick off those unprepared for its editorial frenzy.

It’s easy to dismiss “Burning Man” for its technical ambition. Truthfully, I found myself furious with the feature at times, growing impatient with its intentional disorganization, which often matches grim circumstances of life and death with Tom’s sexual adventures as he sleeps with anything that isn’t nailed down, which introduces a slight comic twist to a dark picture. The miracle of “Burning Man” is how well Teplitzky captures Tom’s personal ruin, a searing jolt of pain that manages to smash through the disorderly approach, resulting in a handful of harrowing moments where the angry man must confront a paralyzing sensation of loss. It’s easily Goode’s finest hour as an actor, bringing such strength and interior churn to Tom’s erratic mourning period, while sustaining the man’s unsavory personality traits, including his volcanic temper, often boiling over while driving. Confronting a life without his wife takes Tom on an extended journey of self, laboring to preserve his hold on Sarah through role playing with his working girl, also developing an obsession with organ donation, fearing the last healthy part of her body, her eyes, were wasted on a dying patient. The filmmaker introduces symbols of Sarah’s gentle personality and monitors Oscar and Karen, but this is Tom’s story of confusion, inspecting the man’s concentrated efforts to poison his own heart.

Sarah’s battle with cancer is devastating to watch, with Goode and Novakovic perfectly capturing the extremity of mood swings, while the deterioration of the body remains a potent reminder of mortality (images of a naked breast carry dual significance here). It’s a heart-wrenching arc that defies the film’s manic cutting, sure to devastate anyone who’s lost a loved one in such a protracted manner. Teplitzky preserves honest displays of shock and loss, carrying real texture to the act of martial devotion and medical aggravation.

While true equilibrium never arrives, “Burning Man” manages to prolong interest in these characters through performance, which acts as the dramatic glue the editorial team is busy rubbing off the effort. “Burning Man” can feel like homework, but it does reward the dedicated with a searing portrait of a man struggling with perspective, hunting for a way to bring himself back from the edge and prove himself to a world waiting for him. There’s genuine beauty beneath the bustle.

Starring: Matthew Goode, Bojana Novakovic, Rachel Griffiths, Essie Davis, Kerry Fox, Anthony Hayes
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky

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