Burning Man opens with a shot of a bloke with his back to the camera standing over a naked prostitute, furiously and fruitlessly masturbating. Soon after, we’re taken on a hellride of chronologically scattered moments of the troubled and frenetic life of the lead character Tom (Matthew Goode), culminating in a spectacularly impressive and almost hallucinogenic slow-mo car crash shot from the driver’s perspective. The car rolls, Tom ends up upside down and bloody, with the contents of the cabin – fruit, vegetables and cuts of meat – tumbling, splitting and splatting around him. Leaking petrol ignites and a firewall rears up, encircling the car wreck and alluding quite terrifyingly to the title of the movie.
As we later discover, the masturbation and rollover scenes are metaphorical renderings of the results of Tom’s desperate efforts to cope with the downward spiral his life has taken. And I have to say, this riotous display of rapid-fire editing and filming pyrotechnics that kicks off the movie is nothing short of breathtaking. BUT…
It goes on and on! At a certain point, the visual and auditory bombast becomes jarring and tedious. For me, this point was reached about 1/4 of the way through the movie.
It quickly becomes evident that the hyperactive, fragmented mode of filming is an expression of Tom’s psychological state. A worthy poetic idea, to be sure, but not sufficient in itself to power a feature length movie. Yes, we access Tom’s enfevered psyche, but there’s not much more going on. Emotion without thought is a headless chook running all over the place bleeding – curious as a freak show, but ultimately yukky and pointless, and mercifully limited in duration. Such mercy was not shown here. Mid-way through and flagging, the thought struck me that this film would have worked better as a long short.
And speaking of working, the audience is assigned quite a load: the story, such as it is, is presented every which way but linear, zigging, zagging, and apparently randomly grasshopping all over the place chronologically, presumably referencing Tom’s over-charged emotional landscape and its minefield of memories. I didn’t mind this aspect of the movie. As it progresses, the fragmented narrative begins to cohere. While there’s some satisfaction for the viewer in this gelling of seemingly disparate and chronologically shuffled narrative segments, suspicion starts to build that there’s not a lot behind all the structural complexity and editing/cinematographic whizzbangery. The multiple repetitions of the masturbation and car crash scenes adds to this suspicion. Sure, we view the scenes with additional narrative knowledge each time, but there is still not enough to them to justify their use as imagistic refrains.
It emerges that Tom’s angst derives from the impending and actual loss of his cancer-striken partner, Sarah (Bojana Novakovic), and his struggle to cope emotionally, psychologically and physically under the burden of his domestic and work demands. His high-pressure work environment as owner-chef of an upscale Bondi restaurant is woven into the fabric of the film to provide a backdrop of clamour, chaos and invective that carries over to Tom’s life outside work. The only letup, apart from the final stages of Sarah’s illness, is in Tom’s quieter moments with 8 year old son Oscar (beautifully played by Jack Heanly), which take on a reflective and poignant quality as they contemplate the demise of their loved one.
Otherwise, Tom comes across as an immature prat, venting his inner anguish in outbursts of road rage, swearing his face off at the slightest provocation, throwing objects around, and seeking solace in sexual encounters with multiple casual partners like a twenty-year-old on a mission to maximise the notches on his bed post. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for him. With his ailing wife, he appears wooden and unsupportive, denying her the words of comfort she seeks, preferring to respond to the tragedy of their circumstance with black humour. Admittedly, he makes her laugh, but these scenes seem effortful, studied and self-conscious in avoiding sentimentality, and the jokes are not funny most of the time.
Strangely, while writer/director Jonathan Teplitzky seems determined for the most part to disallow displays of raw emotion in his lead character (other than macho stuff like anger), he gets down and dirty with intimate detail when it might have been more effective to draw back. The death scene zooms in on the final breath. You see the coffin bursting into flame in the crematorium. And the gals have it all hangin’ out in the sex scenes, which are glossy soft porn in feel. In fact, it’s a veritable tit show, featuring cover-girl-beautiful women splayed out in naked sexual repose. Doomed wife Sarah spends most of her screentime topless, it seems. Not that I’m complaining – she’s an eyeful awright – but it’s all so gratuitous in the context of the movie. If the sex is supposed to be life-affirming, it fails, because it is so bloody vacuuous in its presentation.
As is Tom. Further, I didn’t buy Matthew Goode in this role. He seems too postured, too cool. And when he needs to dig deep he comes up empty-handed, although to be fair that could be partly because there isn’t much to find in his character.
Apparently Teplitzky based this film on his own experiences in coping with the loss of a partner to cancer. I wasn’t surprised to discover that. So often, autobiographical elements do not successfully make the transition from real life to screen. Content that is personally meaningful to the writer is not necessarily so to the audience. I suspect this is one of the major problems underlying Burning Man.
When the flames die down and you rake through the ashes, this movie doesn’t say much about life, death, grief and its aftermath, and in grappling with such an emotional area is curiously unmoving. Even the death scene was only affecting for me because of triggering memories of my own experiences.
Not so much a triumph of style over substance, this is a case of style and substance melding as one. Cinematographic pyrotechnics and editing wizardry notwithstanding, I left the cinema way less than sated.
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