'Burn': Film Review

Burn Still 3 - Momentum Pictures Publicity -H 2019
Courtesy of Momentum Pictures
An unconvincing nail-biter about fantasies of escape.

A lonely gas-station clerk tries to make the most of a stickup in Mike Gan's debut.

A wallflower makes a desperate play for a more exciting life in Mike Gan's Burn, a table-turning hostage film set in a gas station: When she can't turn a man's robbery attempt into an impromptu escape-your-life plan, a cashier (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) finds herself accidentally taking the stickup man (Josh Hutcherson) hostage. Things go way south from there in this not-very-convincing drama, which displays much less insight into its lead character's psyche than required; though key art tries to exploit Cobham-Hervey's more famous co-stars Hutcherson and Suki Waterhouse, theatrical prospects are dreary.

Cobham-Hervey plays Melinda, a quiet young woman who longs for romance while mopping the floors and making change on the overnight shift. (Though she plays a mouse here, she'll presumably roar as Helen Reddy in I Am Woman, a biopic premiering next month at the Toronto International Film Festival.) Melinda pines for Officer Liu (Harry Shum, Jr.), the cop who makes regular pit stops for coffee, but the store's male customers tend to have eyes for Melinda's bitchy co-worker Sheila (Waterhouse). Melinda makes improbable efforts to engage the clientele — offering unsolicited advice on snack foods; introducing herself to customers as if they were entering a boutique and might want her assistance — and is so starved of feeling that she takes to a pretty unlikely-seeming variant on cutting: When nobody's looking, she dips her fingers into pots of fresh coffee.

Then a handsome stranger arrives, carrying a gun loaded with excitement. Hutcherson's Billy announces his robbery like a nearly-clever teen who's watched a lot of Tarantino films; he promises Melinda and Sheila he means them no harm, but that's not good enough for the latter, who is so needlessly sarcastic him that Billy feels he has to drag her into the storeroom and threaten her. All the while, Melinda's standing with the bag full of money she took out of the store's safe, asking only for Billy to take her along with the cash. His demurrals frustrate, then offend her.

Neither Gan's screenplay nor his direction of the cast quite sells this scenario, but once he introduces some accidental violence, the picture can ride the familiar logic of crime-gone-wrong storytelling. Having involved herself, Melinda overcommits to the crime underway, even if that means trying to force Billy to make her his moll. Would this naive girl really not understand that turning off the store's lights would keep troublesome customers from coming to interrupt her plans? From caffeine-hungry truckers to Officer Liu to the gang of bikers Billy has wronged, men just keep showing up, none of them quite sharp enough to realize strange things are afoot at the Circle K.

Eventually, Gan makes good on his title, turning Melinda's nagging inclination toward self-harm into a burn-it-all-down plan. Maybe this strategy will work better for her than it has for fed-up voters here and abroad over the last few years.

Production company: Yale Productions
Distributor: Momentum Distribution
Cast: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Josh Hutcherson, Suki Waterhouse, Harry Shum Jr., Shiloh Fernandez
Director-screenwriter: Mike Gan
Producers: Jordan Yale Levine, Jordan Beckerman, Sukee Chew, Russ Posternak, Michael J. Rothstein, Ash Christian
Director of photography: Jon Keng
Production designer: Eric Whitney
Costume designer: Annie Simon
Editor: Marc Fusco
Composer: Ceiri Torjussen
Casting director: Brandon Henry Rodriguez

88 minutes