Burning Man (Australia, 2011)
Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky
Written by: Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring: Matthew Goode, Bojana Novakovic, Rachel Griffiths, Jack Heanly, Kerry Fox
The first half-hour of Jonathan Teplitzky’s Burning Man is a frenetic series of excerpts from the life of Bondi chef, negligent father and all-round terrible human being Tom Kinnear (Matthew Goode), the jigsaw almost impossible to fit together because pieces jump forward and back through time and what little dialogue exists is naturalistic rather than expository.
We see him speeding and honking his way around Sydney in his VW Beetle, indiscriminately leveling obscenities at anyone who causes him even the mildest of inconveniences. We see him attempt to masturbate onto a prostitute dressed as a nurse wearing an improbably large curly wig, and have unsuccessful sexual dalliances with a handful of other women. We see him vindictively serve a chicken – which has first found itself kicked onto the floor, dunked in a toilet and fried to a crisp – to a customer who had the audacity to complain that his meal was undercooked. We see him wheeled into a hospital, drenched in blood, after a car accident.
It’s an incredibly risky way to start a film, challenging your audience to stick with an unlikeable main character through difficult-to-understand vignettes which last no more than a few minutes each and have no discernible connection to each other, but we also catch fleeting glimpses of another, less choleric Tom, and gradually the pieces are fleshed out with context to reveal the source of his personality dysfunctions. The mood cools, the pace slows, and we are given the space to fully empathise with Tom and his self-destructive practices.
It’s difficult to reveal Tom’s personal struggle without ruining the emotional impact of the film’s reveal, because once we realise why he’s such a dick it frames the entire film in a new light and distaste for his negative traits is replaced by the realisation that he’s actually coping quite well with it all, considering. He’s gone through an impossibly traumatic experience which has sucked every last joy from his existence and left him a cold, self-loathing, aggressive husk of a man. British actor Matthew Goode, until now used mostly in supporting roles, revels in exploring the emotional highs and lows of his lead character, and his performance would be Oscar-worthy were it not in a small, independent Australian film.
Quick-fire changes in time and space (Burning Man is possibly the best-edited film of the year) emotionally distance Tom from the audience, and force us to identify not with Tom himself but with the other people in his life – friends, relatives, coworkers – valiantly attempting to provide a support structure for a man who wants only for the world to burn. The film’s emotional punch (and, two packets of tissues later, I realised that it is quite a punch) comes from recognising the personal hell enveloping him, wanting desperately to reach inside him and mend his broken soul, but being completely helpless to do so.
Only a disarmingly comedic ending derails the nonstop train of sadness driving through the second half of the film, and though it’s a well-intentioned attempt to end the film on some sort of high note it lies in direct contrast with the tone of the rest of the film, which is among the most heartfelt and realistic dramas seen in cinemas in 2011.