Never underestimate the power of love — and the mind-blowing kindness of a by-the-book preacher — to lead a man to salvation. At least, that’s the message of “Burden,” the third recent movie (after last year’s “Best of Enemies” and “Skin” a few months later) to feature a Klan member being coaxed into the light.
This time, the movie’s flawed hero is the real-life Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), an uneducated repo man in small-town South Carolina. The year is 1996, and Mike and his brothers-in-hate have repurposed a crumbling movie theater as the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum. Outside, the Rev. David Kennedy (an affecting Forest Whitaker) and his flock are staging peaceful protests. They don’t know that Mike will soon mount a roof and train his sniper rifle on the reverend’s head.
Based on the startling true story of Mike’s renunciation of the Klan (and the resulting tussle for ownership of the museum), Andrew Heckler’s film debut is often preachy and overripe with white-power symbolism. Yet its mood of airless bigotry is quite effective, portraying the Klan’s influence with officials and the police as an ingrained stain on the fabric of the town. When Mike falls for Judy (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother who’s not at all down with racism, he’s forced to choose between his woman and the only family he has ever known.
Though the themes of “Burden” feel uncomfortably current, their execution is leaden and dismayingly artless. Wrapped in Jeremy Rouse’s dusty-soft cinematography, Mike’s reluctant journey to redemption is unpersuasive, his personality only semi-formed and his behavior a tangle of contradictions. Scenes with his surrogate father and Klan leader (Tom Wilkinson, casually monstrous) have a naturalness that’s lacking in his interactions with the preacher, whose near-saintly generosity seems almost sacrificial.
And then there’s Hedlund’s distractingly odd performance, one that pushes his character from inarticulate to the precipice of slow-witted. This is a man who seems fully alive only when fists connect with flesh, a brute whose baptism scene feels like a triumph, but whose absolution feels a long way away.
“Burden,” with Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wilkinson. Written and directed by Andrew Heckler. 129 minutes. R for disturbing violent content, and language throughout including racial epithets. Opens March 6 at multiple theaters. The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.