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.