Burning Man: Toronto Film Review
Australian film about a man in anguish challenges viewers with its time-jumping structure.
An unconventional film about grief whose alienation-courting tactics pay off in the end, Jonathan Teplitzky's Burning Man takes its time getting us to feel for a troubled character but gets the hook in solidly once it decides to, establishing a connection that could pay off at the box office.
Matthew Goode is Tom, an agitated man introduced via scenes that hop bewilderingly back and forth through time: One minute he's blood-covered, being wheeled into an ER, another he's masturbating fruitlessly over the naked torso of a prostitute. Most of the time he's cursing, making an impatient cell phone call, or both.
Since the film takes half an hour to explain that Tom wasn't always such a jerk -- not only by withholding information but by occasionally misleading us -- it seems prudent to offer a spoiler warning before revealing that Tom is in anguish, behaving wildly after losing his wife to cancer.
After this revelation, the urgent pace of Martin Connor's editing slows, the emotional temperature cools to an endurable level, and we get to see Tom as a talented chef, loving husband, and caring dad who copes as well as can be expected during his wife's painful decline. As we piece the chronology together, Goode gets a chance to connect with viewers, who will be especially affected as he puts on a brave face for his eight-year-old son Oscar.
The movie isn't nearly as dour as it might sound, working in a fair bit of wry humor and much more sex appeal than most stories about breast cancer would offer. Garry Phillips's stylish cinematography is thoroughly appealing, with only a couple of shots calling attention to themselves in a distracting way, and the score by Lisa Gerrard (formerly of the band Dead Can Dance) fuses the picture's opposing moods.
The extremity of the film's slice-and-dice approach is invigorating at the outset but may also prompt viewers to suspect they're being challenged for no good reason. As it progresses, though, the structure proves an effective way of combating the trite emotional trajectory of grief films, which can leave audiences feeling manipulated even when done skillfully.
It's also an eloquent evocation of Tom's emotional state, as he indulges the impulse to look anywhere for distractions from his pain. By the time Teplitzky starts returning to scenes that confused us at the film's outset, we naturally experience them in a completely different way -- picking through the human wreckage to note the healthy impulses that might eventually allow Tom to live a whole life again.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production Companies: Archer Street/Meercat Films.
Cast: Matthew Goode, Bojana Novakovic, Essie Davis, Kerry Fox, Rachel Griffiths, Jack Heanly.
Director-screenwriter: Jonathan Teplitzky.
Producers: Andy Paterson, Jonathan Teplitzky.
Executive producers: Daria Jovicic, Cedric Jeanson, Sam Tromans.
Director of photography: Garry Phillips.
Production designer: Steven Jones-Evans.
Music: Lisa Gerrard.
Costume designer: Lizzy Gardiner.
Editor: Martin Connor.
No rating, 109 minutes.