As brainwashed white supremacist Mike Burden in Andrew Heckler’s “Burden,” Garrett Hedlund moves like a marionette, arms loose, shoulders swaying, head under the control of a vile father figure (Tom Wilkinson) manipulating his strings. Heckler’s generous drama is based on the true story of a repo man whose attempt to quit the Klan in 1996 ignited one of the strangest real-estate lawsuits in modern history between Wilkinson’s Fagen-eqsue Tom Griffin, the operator of the Redneck KKK Museum, and a local reverend named Kennedy (Forest Whitaker).
“Burden” shapes Mike’s hard-luck life into a battle between hate and love fought both on the street in front of the museum and over the young man’s soul. It’s an emphatic film that focuses on how families, whether biological or self-assembled, forge your beliefs. Heckler rearranges the truth for maximum uplift, downplaying the fact that Mike wasn’t just a kid, but a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon. Reality is even more complicated than Heckler’s emotionally complex script, but the film he’s fashioned from this small showdown in South Carolina is a big-hearted crowd-pleaser that inspires hope without letting its characters, even the heroes, off the hook.
Technically, to call Mike brainwashed is generous. He’s dumb, full-stop, which takes intelligence to act. After “Mudbound,” Hedlund’s on a streak of playing good ol’ southern boys who don’t know no better till they’re forced to learn. His whole life is destruction disguised as uplift. The movie opens with a jangling, knee-slapping country guitar that makes busting glass and smashing soda machines feel like a party. That part-time demolition gig is for a company called Plantation Concrete, the kind of dog-whistle that used to pass unremarked, and his boss, Griffith, has sponsored Mike’s whole life, raising the abused kid alongside other boys who now feel like brothers. In the backyard, Griffith gives young boys Bowie knives and teaches them how to shank “dark meat.”
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As an adult, Mike doesn’t know anyone who’s not in the Klan. It all seems normal, the cookouts that end up in cross-burnings, the racist insults his buddies wave off as a joke, or a figure of speech. When not hauling wood, Mike hangs out at Griffin’s KKK Museum, erected on the site of a now-shuttered segregated movie theater named the Echo, whose name over the old marquee is a reminder that bigotry has reverberated in this country since the beginning. You get the sense that among everything Mike’s been convinced to sledgehammer, seize, and set aflame, the museum is the one thing he’s gotten to build. He’s proud of it. And when Whitaker’s preacher protests the building, Mike follows Griffith’s order to get on the roof with a gun.
“Burden” has empathy for the economics and self-esteem issues that make poor, white, angry Americans prone to stand on other people’s necks to feel taller. Call it, “Trump Voter Thinkpiece: The Movie.” To be clear, “Burden” isn’t saying Klan members are good people. Heckler also observes the systematic indignities the town’s black population endures: the suspicious store clerks, casual insults, and the callousness that keeps residents like Clarence (Usher Raymond) from getting an equal break. The Klan’s cruelties are even worse. For kicks, the guys pile into a pickup and urinate on a black woman trying to walk home. Heckler keeps the camera on the innocent woman’s face as the truck speeds away, and her sobs make us shiver with guilt just for watching. Mike is violent and does things audiences can call unforgivable — but the ability to forgive, and to ask for forgiveness, is part of what the film wants to examine.
Hedlund leans so heavily on Mike’s bobbing physicality that the audience nearly gets seasick. Still, it’s an unselfish performance from a strong young actor who’s been devoting his career to tough parts that don’t ask for applause. He plays Mike like a dense hunk of meat. Slice him open and you won’t find a single independent thought. Instead, you’ll find traits that would be admirable if they hadn’t been warped: loyalty, sensitivity, and a burning need to be loved that roils inside him like magma.
Heckler’s point is that love, or a conditional acceptance that Mike mistakes for love, is a powerful force. From there, “Burden” tests love’s strength from all directions. There is genuine love among Mike and his adopted KKK family, and you sense that bond keeps him in the Klan more than any political ideology. And there’s genuine love in Mike’s relationship with a single mother named Judy (Andrea Riseborough), for whom he falls in a grim meet-cute when he knocks on her door to repossess her TV.
Mike’s clearly no fairy tale prince. His first grand gesture is to force Judy to wear his greasy grey sweatshirt at a race car track, causing his friends to joke, “We was all thinking he was a gay.” But Judy, a superstore worker who can’t pay her bills, isn’t much of a princess. She’s self-admitted white trash and a loud gum-snapper. (Every actor is laden with a condescending physical tic, like spitting.) In her cheap dresses, Riseborough looks deceptively fragile. Yet, she nearly breaks up with Mike after a dinner with his Klan family where the conversation is a domino chain of racist absurdities, a crack about eating dog meat leading to the declaration that China bombed Pearl Harbor. When Judy hides out in the ladies room, Griffith notes, “I don’t think your friend likes my sense of humor,” setting up a love triangle of sorts where the old man and new girlfriend compete for Mike’s heart.
Meanwhile, the reverend struggles to convince his wife (Crystal R. Fox) and son (Dexter Darden) to open their hearts to men like Mike. He’s trying to model himself like a modern-day Martin Luther King Jr., leading peace rallies outside the museum where his churchgoers chant, “Pump, pump it up!” (Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” was more hip in 1996.) The character teeters on the edge of sainthood, but Heckler does what he can to make him human. Lecturing his family on civil rights at home, Whitaker’s voice slips into a grand-standing sermon — a sanctimony his annoyed family has clearly endured at too many dinners. Another time, he’s so exhausted from holding in repressed anger, he sits in his car and screams.
There’s a heavy-handed, but handsome sequence where Heckler cross-cuts between the reverend and the Klan leader preaching to their flocks. Heckler can’t resist pressing his finger on the scales to make audiences leave on a muddled high. He’s sold us on the strength of love, only to make us do a double-take at the factual final coda, which seems to take place in a different timeline. Still, Hedlund’s humble, hard-to-love performance makes the aptly named “Burden” work as both a portrait of one weak-minded man, and as a study of the ideas people carry without questioning why.