The reviews that I always find the hardest to write are for those movies that I really love. I never feel like I can express well enough exactly what makes the film special and I also struggle not to include spoilers even though I would prefer audiences to go cold into these special films. “Burning Man” is a film that I love and I am going to do my best to explain why.
Right from the start of the film we are thrown into the thick of the story without knowing anything about what is going on. We are given disjointed images and scenes that are not even presented in any sort of chronological order, scenes may be in the present, and the next from the past, and the next, again, may be from the future. Character definitions and relationships are all kept hidden from us due to this disjointed style and the relationships we think we understand from these opening minutes turn out to be entirely different. Some audiences, I believe, could find the opening of “Burning Man” to be incredibly frustrating due to it being very hard to be certain exactly what is going on, but for me, I loved the opening and the confusion deliberately caused at the start. It intrigued me right from the opening frame and sharpened my mind for what was to come.
As I alluded to, “Burning Man” works so much better without knowing too much about the plot going in, but what I can tell you is that the center of the film is the character of Tom (played by Matthew Goode), who plays a British chef living in Australia with his wife and young son. When the images of the beginning start to become clearer we learn that Tom is dealing (and not very well, mind you) with a tragedy that has recently hit his family. Not only is he struggling to come to terms with what has happened but he is also using his grief in an overly manipulative way with his friends and family by becoming incredibly selfish and aggressive. Although it is never intentional, he believes that the world owes him something and he can get away with doing or saying anything and everyone will accept it due to his grief. He begins to head down a path of self destruction as he starts ignoring both his family and work duties, but is he able to bring himself back in time, because we know through one of the opening images that Tom is involved in a serious car accident. Is this a result of his not caring about the world anymore or will the accident sharpen his mind and refocus him about what is really important in life?
“Burning Man” is an incredibly personal project for director Jonathan Teplitzky who went through a similar trauma to what the character of Tom is going through. Although it never went to the extant shown in the film, Teplitzky also found that he was using his grief as a crutch, and this was the seed that grew into the film we have now. Teplitzky does an amazing job telling this heartbreaking story and making it seem so real. He never over-sentimentalizes moments to tug at the heartstrings which is a smart move because he creates enough real emotion in the story he is telling. I suspect telling aspects of your own story would be a challenge simply because you would want the audience to feel what you went through yourself, so making the film sentimental would’ve been a huge trap, which luckily Teplitzky does not fall into. He is also brave at creating a character who is so unlikable and then him have be the person you want the audience to sympathize with. Tom is such a selfish person, at least when you initially meet him, that you think it is going to be a chore to sit through two hours with the guy, but luckily Teplitzky shows us the man before the tragedy struck and he is a completely different person, so loving and caring towards his family and friends, and you can see why his friends would stick by him even after his appalling behavior. The other brave decision Teplitzky made was in the way he decided to present the story to the audience, in the frenetic non-linear and heavily edited style. It is a decision that could seriously alienate some viewers but for me it was totally mesmerizing. I never once felt like Teplitzky did not have a hold on his story, and instead of being confused by the constantly changing timelines shown, I was intrigued. It created a suspense of just wanting to know exactly what happened to this man. I also loved that images that you thought had a certain meaning at the start of the film turned out to mean something completely different by the end. The way the film had been edited if done poorly could’ve caused the film to implode in on itself, but the work by Martin Connor here is just exemplary.
As much as the story belongs to Jonathan Teplitzky, the film belongs to Matthew Goode who gives a truly amazing central performance as Tom. The amount of different emotions he has to project here is enormous and he nails every one, never under or overplaying a moment. He does a great job at presenting a seriously unlikable fellow in the first half of the film, and yet an utterly charming man when we witness his past. He is always very real and in the moment, and I especially loved scenes when he got angry about what he was going through (I would love to talk about the scene in question here, but to do so would give away the mystery of the whole film). Tom goes through quite the emotional journey throughout “Burning Man” and Goode never makes a wrong beat throughout.
Besides Goode, the rest of the cast are uniformly excellent with everyone giving beautifully nuanced performances. I was absolutely blown away by Bojana Novakovic who plays Tom’s wife, Sarah, and who is equally going through some tough emotions of her own. Like Tom, Sarah goes through quite a transformation of her own, and again Novakovic’s portrayal is always honest and real. She is also just luminous to look at. I think this is the first time I have seen her on screen but she is stunning. The other performance I want to mention is that of Essie Davis who plays Sarah’s sister, Karen. Although her screen time is limited whenever she is on screen you sit up and take notice. I should also mention that there are some nice turns by veteran actors Rachel Griffiths and Garry McDonald in bit parts also.
I cannot finish this review without mentioning the cinematography by Garry Phillips, it is stunningly gorgeous. He makes Bondi look amazing and I couldn’t help but notice an amazing similarity to Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on Terrence Malick’s “The Tree Of Life”, with even certain images from both films almost looking the same. Since both films were released in the same year, this appears to be one of those coincidences that happens from time to time, but to be named in the same sentence as Lubezki, is the highest praise for Phillips in my eyes.
Overall, I just loved “Burning Man” and was incredibly moved by the entire experience of watching it. It has been brilliantly shot, edited, written and directed by all involved, and the actors portraying their roles are all magnificent. My favourite scene of the whole film is when we are witness to the characters being told of the tragedy, and we as an audience are so incredibly moved by the entire thing, even though we are yet to meet the character in question. This is an amazing feat by director Teplitzky to make us care about the fate of a character we do not even know. The way the story has been presented is exhilarating cinema in my eyes, and while it could cause frustration in some viewer’s eyes, without it “Burning Man” could have turned into a generic “movie of the week” weepie. Instead by being brave, Teplitzky has almost created a masterpiece with this very personal work. I cannot recommend this film enough.