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In the history of film, the foreigner coming to the shores of America has made for some inspiring and reverent examinations of cross-cultural relationships from Charlie Chaplin‘s 1917 short, The Immigrant to Robin Williams‘ 1984 comedy-drama Moscow on the Hudson to many more, the clash, the conflict, and the hope these movies share have made for some truly great film experiences. With Burn Country, formerly titled The Fixer, we follow an Afghan man who has come to be in a sleepy Northern California town looking to make a difference but finding similarities between the war-torn landscapes of his home country and the complications of small crime in the woods of the American west coast.
Osman (Dominic Rains) is a Fixer, a term used in Afghanistan for a journalist who travels with foreign correspondents as a kind of cultural liaison. He has arrived in American and taken up residence with a colleague’s mother (Melissa Leo), a local police officer who welcomes him unconditionally. He came under the impression he has a job at the paper as a correspondent, but is misled and finds there is no work other typing the police blotter at $50 a week.
After an encounter with a colorful character named Lindsay (James Franco), a sort of stringy hick living with his extremely disturbed mother, he decides to take the job to task and turn it into investigative reporting. What he finds are entanglements that exposes a family of serial criminals but more so, relationships with lasting impact.
Directed by Ian Olds, Burn Country begins with great promise and is an often visually arresting film that captures the fogged landscape–which serves more metaphorically than aesthetically–with great atmospheric immersion, keeping us adrift in a mystery. Olds, who also wrote the screenplay, develops a compelling story around a strong lead performance and a few very good supporting players, and makes great efforts to link two cultural experiences, but there is a tonal imbalance that hinders this just enough to keep it from true greatness.
That begins with Franco, who feels utterly out of place in this film, adorning himself in a long haired-stringy wig and straw hat, speaking in backcountry twang, and chewing up every last bit of scenery he can with each frame he is in. Meant to be bombastic, it comes off disjointed, and wrecks the outstanding tone that Rains establishes and Olds sets up. Franco’s incessant pothead-like grins and playful acting style undercut the menace of the film’s intent and leave his character unsympathetic at best.
That said, many parts of Burn Country are a wonder. Olds is patient with this camera, and uses Rains with great skill, often keeping him alone on roads and paths, feeling stranded in an unfamiliar place, sometimes running through it being chased by those who want to harm him. There are a number of odd characters he meets on these roads per se, and they have impact on different levels, and while some feel a little forced, such as a troupe of free spirits led by a man (Tim Kniffin) who seeks more personal enlightenment and an alluring woman (Rachel Brosnahan) in his company that seems driven to him but equally ambiguous in letting him know.
Leo is also very good, her character a lonely woman desperate to know where her son is in Afghanistan, clinging to the hope Osman will act as a conduit to him. She harkens back a bit to Marge Gunderson of the Coen Brothers‘ dark comedy Fargo (1996) but lacks the satire of the part. She is a study in contradictions, inviting Osman to sometimes join her as she investigates and then aggressively commanding him to stay clear, a trait that is meant to illustrate the dichotomist relationship Osman is having with the people of this town.
Burn Country is a well-acted and directed film that has many moments of emotion and sudden intensity, despite a few missteps within. While the glimpses we get of Osman’s homeland are intriguing and perhaps even more tempting to learn about than the world he finds himself now, this is a story worth knowing.
Director: Ian Olds
Writers: Ian Olds, Paul Felten
Stars: Dominic Rains, Melissa Leo, James Franco
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Language: English, (Brief sequence of Polish)