Talk about playing with the reader’s expectations and misleading the audience! Australian picture Burning Man is all about that. Writer-director Jonathan Teplitzky deconstructs grief films skillfully, without pigeonholing the film as a romance/drama/love story, but while embracing all of the above. From the title of the movie to creating characters that turn out to be completely different from what the viewer first thinks, Burning Man keeps you guessing till the very end – and is entertaining throughout, despite its unpopular subject matter.
Tom (Matthew Goode) is a chef at a chic Sydney restaurant. These are the sweeping generalizations every viewer will make about him based on the first 20 minutes of the film: jerk, sex addict, neglectful parent, reckless driver, hooligan, psychopath, insult to the profession of a chef (many of those traits revealed to great comical effect). We observe him early in the film, in a hospital losing blood profusely, as a nurse cries hysterically beside him – a seemingly hopeless case.
What follows is a dream sequence/hallucination collection/memory montage of Tom’s life before the accident.
Burning Man seems like one of those postmodernist novels, with each chapter written on a separate card, the reader invited to shuffle at will to create a unique order of things. Here the director sets the order, creating a maddening atmosphere of uncontrollable chaos (the award-winning score by Lisa Gerrard also helps), annoying the hell out of the viewer. Time, characters, and tone are so fucked up it’s impossible to orient yourself through it all, which is exactly what Tom is going through, inviting the viewer to walk in his shoes.
Don’t shun from spoilers
Spoilers are actually a saver for those who want to see Burning Man; they may definitely help in getting through the first 20 minutes without giving up on the whole affair (I nearly did, and a quick look at a review online helped me jump back into it). So here is a big one: Tom is such a pain in the ass because he has just lost his beautiful wife Sarah (Bojana Novakovic) to cancer, after a long up-and-down battle. He doesn’t really know how to cope, and sinks into narcissism, neglecting his eight-year-old son Oscar (Jack Heanly), and slowly self-destructing. He lives in a surreal world where he can cook any meal under the sun, but his son wants to order pizza every night. He makes prostitutes put on curly wigs to resemble his late wife’s hair, but he can’t climax. Every woman he casually shags has perfectly shaped breasts, but it’s a reminder of the breast cancer that robbed him of love.
Montage migraine alert
The tonal shifts of the movie resemble Tom’s emotional rollercoaster. One particular montage juxtaposes shots of a breast gently caressed when Tom and Sarah make love, and the same breast being examined by an oncologist at the hospital. Humor and eroticism are not usually associated with cancer and grief movies, but it’s pulled off expertly here, giving a fuller definition to ‘life’ than the Hollywood bullshit we are used to. The scene in which the doctors are trying to figure out where exactly so much blood is coming from on Tom’s body is especially hilarious, as well as the part where he makes ‘special chicken’ for an unhappy client. Combining the funny and the sad hasn’t been so harmonious since Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
The crazy editing can get to some people but if anything, this representation of reality is closest to the way we think, the way our memory works, how internal speech is formed, how an object, a person or a smell can call up a montage of memories, thoughts, daydreams, almost hallucinations (aggravated by the sorry condition of the character). Jonathan Teplitzky should be praised for trying to emulate those complex processes onscreen.
Finally, Burning Man is a refreshing break from the Hollywood dictate of sunny, bubblegum endings. The movie gives hope to filmmakers with an easy formula for doing difficult subjects ‘in reverse’ or ‘out of order’ – as long as the ending note is a positive one. And with the last scene set in the tranquility of nature, Burning Man is nothing else but an affirmation of life, and its unstoppable continuity.
DVD Information: This is a movie best watched at home: you can rewind and fast-forward at free will. Watch again, after a while, and new details reveal themselves to you. The second watch will give you enough ‘aha!’ moments for the rest of your life, and the red herrings expertly placed throughout the movie will be sliced and diced before you know it.
The DVD is an HD release with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Extras include an audio commentary with Director Jonathan Teplitzky and Editor Martin Connor, interviews (with the main cast, Director and Producer Andy Paterson), behind the scenes, and the theatrical trailer.
Verdict: Burning Man is perfect for cinema and literature insiders, linguists, connect-the-dots enthusiasts, and foodies everywhere. Those who are looking for a good old sob picture are welcome as well.