There’s more smoke than fire in “Burn,” a reasonably promising single-location thriller that never quite settles on what it wants to be — a straight-up suspense piece, twisty black comedy, oddball character study, etc. “All the above” would be a tall but not impossible order to pull off. The problem is that writer-director Mike Gan’s first feature, though competently handled in most departments, doesn’t commit enough to any approach to fulfill its potential.
The result is a passably diverting, moderately offbeat but also instantly forgettable hybrid that doesn’t even rank among the best truck-stop-in-crisis movies: “Shack Out on 101” and “Splinter” remain unchallenged atop that slim hierarchy. “Burn” opens on 10 U.S. screens Aug. 23, simultaneous with VOD and Digital launch.
Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) arrives for her night shift at a 24-hour gas station/quickie-mart type joint off an undesignated highway. The kind of nondescript worker drone whose over-friendliness sits queasily between a simple need to be liked and something more desperate, she provides all too convenient a pin-cushion for the barbs of prettier, bitchier co-worker Sheila (Suki Waterhouse), who doesn’t spare the paying customers her sometimes-vicious snark, either.
That proves a mistake when they get a visit from disheveled young stranger Billy (Josh Hutcherson), who waits until no one else is present, then pulls a gun on the two employees. He’s in trouble (“There are some very unreasonable people who are trying to kill me”) and needs to get out of town, fast, with whatever’s in the till as travel money. But that getaway is complicated by Sheila’s bad attitude, as well as Melinda’s less explicable plea, “Can I go with you?” — a strange request that soon becomes a creepy demand.
Things escalate rapidly, with one party soon deceased and another waking up duct-taped to a chair in a hidden rear area of the mart. As the crimes pile up, as well as the need to cover them up, customers keep arriving, most of them oblivious to any danger they’re in. Not quite so blind are Sheila’s boyfriend Perry (Shiloh Fernandez), who doesn’t accept a fumbled explanation of her whereabouts, or Officer Liu (Harry Shum Jr.), a nice rookie cop already aware there’s a wanted fugitive in the area. Eventually, an entire motorcycle gang of Billy’s creditors shows up as well.
The primary focus is on Melinda’s wobbly coping skills under pressure. But neither the film nor Cobham-Hervey quite know what to do with the character: Is she simply a pathetic wallflower grasping at any hope of rescue or approval? A grudge-keeping avenger in sheep’s clothing a la Carrie White? Her alternate currents of haplessness and glint-eyed resourcefulness never resolve into a coherent identity, or even a useful ambivalence.
It’s not that the actress is incompetent; it’s that the movie seldom seems to be sure just who or what she’s playing for more than one scene at a time. That leaves “Burn” with an awkward, unstable core, unable to commit to whether the character at its core is simply (or even a simple-minded) victim, or a personality more devious and perverse. It doesn’t help that the plot twists hold attention without ever seeming particularly ingenious, or that Gan doesn’t provide much tension in atmosphere or pacing.
The film is nicely turned in all tech/design departments, with solid supporting performances and a decent score by Ceiri Torjussen that does provide some of the tonal glue otherwise lacking. But it never quite ignites, even when (as the title duly portends) the setting literally does. It’s ultimately a stalemate between neo-noir, indie character quirkiness and macabre psycho-chiller. Sooner or later, a movie has to show its hand — but “Burn” seems to be deciding which cards to play when the final credits roll.