Movie review of “Burn Country”: The performances are first rate in this psychological thriller about a stranger from Afghanistan coming into a strange land — an area of Northern California rife with rural tribalism. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
Into a strange land, a stranger comes in “Burn Country.”
The stranger is Osman (Dominic Rains), a journalist from Afghanistan exiled to the U.S. The strange land in which he finds himself is Northern California, in the Guerneville/Healdsburg/Monte Rio region of the Russian River Valley. It’s an area of tangled woods, winding two-lane roads and, absent rains, parched hills. In “Burn Country,” it’s an area rife with rural tribalism, where the local people know everybody’s business and strangers are viewed with curiosity at best, deep suspicion at worst.
Movie Review ★★★
‘Burn Country,’ with Dominic Rains, Melissa Leo, James Franco, Tim Kniffin, Rachel Brosnahan. Directed by Ian Olds, from a screenplay by Olds and Paul Felten. 102 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains language, violence, adult situations). Opens Friday, Dec. 9, at the Varsity.
Directed and co-written by Ian Olds, “Burn Country” is all about disorientation. Osman — lured to the area by expectations of landing a newspaper job, which doesn’t materialize, and living in the home of the mother of the American war correspondent for whom he was a translator in Afghanistan — is a man very much out of place.
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He meets people whose relationships and agendas are obscure. One, a stoner dude named Lindsay (an almost unrecognizable James Franco), is physically hostile at first but later seemingly friendly, though his friendliness has an edge of menace to it. Through Lindsay, Osman runs afoul of a couple of backwoods types who chase him with the intent of beating him, or worse. Why? He doesn’t know.
He also falls in with a local theater troupe led by a charismatic director (Tim Kniffin) whose relationship to his lead actress (Rachel Brosnahan) intrigues Osman, because he finds he’s attracted her himself.
There’s a murder. There’s evidence of another murder.
As a journalist, Osman wants to get to the bottom of who’s killing whom and for what reasons. But his friend’s mom, a sheriff’s deputy (Melissa Leo), warns him off: “Let us take care of it, in our own way.”
The performances are first rate, particularly Rains’ work in the lead role. He effectively captures Osman’s bafflement and also his underlying sorrow at being so far from home.
“I left so many people behind just to be here,” he says. “It has to mean something.”
The meaning he ultimately gleans from his experiences can be summed up by a lyric from a Bob Dylan song: “One should never be where one does not belong.”