Grief is Messy (Film Review: “Burning Man”)

What starts off as a confusing landslide of jumbled snippets turns into a raw portrait of one man’s grief in the Australian film, Burning Man.

SnapShot Plot

Fans of the hit CBS drama, The Good Wife will be pleased to see British heartthrob Matthew Goode headlining in this film, although his confounding character couldn’t be more different from the affable attorney he plays on television. When we meet executive chef, Tom Keaton, he’s engaged in a rather intimate activity better left to your imagination. Have I mentioned the rather explicit sexuality in this film? I’ll let you be the judge of how much is warranted vs. gratuitous, but let’s just say that sex is a primary vehicle through which Tom grapples with a personal tragedy that has left him utterly devastated. He’s struggling in the restaurant, struggling in the relationship with his young son, struggling to keep a lid on his anger and rage. . . until the proverbial pot boils over.

To be honest, the disjointed narrative was a bit jarring for the first 15 minutes, until (with the appearance of the character of Sarah, played by Bojana Novakovic) all of a sudden it wasn’t, and then the recurring images of spontaneous combustion and the disparate symbolic elements all started to make sense and to gel in a profoundly personal and poignant way. The other reason to stay with this film is Matthew Goode himself. In previous roles in films such as Chasing Liberty, Match Point and the remake of Brideshead Revisited, one can’t escape the ‘Mc-Dreamy’  factor he’s got going on with those luminous eyes and the somber yet childlike face which can be innocent and playful but turn something darker in a flash. But he’s more than a face; there’s an unnerving intelligence behind those eyes that makes whatever or whoever he’s playing, infinitely interesting to the audience. So as much as Tom’s world is burning up around him, we hang on for the ride to see if he’ll emerge from the flames.



Parting Shot

So what starts out as a blur of unrelated memories translates to a kind of multifaceted slice of Life, in all its sublime joy and unrelenting sorrow. And I suppose that when we think or daydream or remember our own lives, it is just this kind of jumbled out-of-sequence tale, with emotional rather than contiguous mile markers measuring it all out. Burning Man is not a perfect film (few are) but the impact it aims to make is accomplished. Death, in this movie, is not a romanticized journey in which the hero makes a Pyrrhic victory of sorts, becoming (through suffering) an almost saintlike figure of virtue and grace. Tom has his moments, certainly, but he’s not an easy character to root for either. Which makes his suffering and loss all the more compelling as drama.

Another reason this film works is the fine supporting cast, starting with Bojana Novakovic (remember her in Devil? .  . “I think something just bit me!”) and including Essie Davis, Kerry Fox and the always magnetic Rachel Griffiths. It’s also shot beautifully by Cinematographer, Garry Phillips with a haunting musical score by one of my favorite film composers, Lisa Gerrard. You may recall the evocative scores in Man on Fire and Gladiator? That’s her, and for Burning Man she won the Film Critics Circle of Australia Award.

Not an easy film at times, but not the pity party you may fear, either, Burning Man has singed a place in Norma’s Streaming Picks. I hope you’ll agree!

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