Sundance Review: Garrett Hedlund is Perfect in a Somewhat Imperfect ‘Burden’

Garrett Hedlund appears in Burden by Andrew Heckler, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Michael Muller.

Sundance Film Festival: If you weren’t already convinced of Garrett Hedlund‘s talent before, just wait until you see “Burden.”

“Burden” comes from first time writer and director Andrew Heckler whose previous work involves acting in film and television. Heckler learned the story of Mike Burden in the late 1990s and became fascinated with the story of a young man, raised in the KKK, who ultimately turned his life around and learned how to love.

Garrett Hedlund plays Mike Burden with such care that one can’t help but hope for his redemption. Mike does terrible things to people. He and his adopted family open a KKK museum; he beats someone nearly to death because of his race; he proudly dons his robe and attends his Klan rallies. And yet, even when he seems fully committed to these awful moments, Hedlund knows there is something brewing beneath the surface and he allows the smallest of glimpses. Garrett Hedlund is proving himself to be one of the finest actors of his time.

And, of course, everything changes because of a girl. Judy (Andrea Riseborough), more specifically. She is a single mother in search of something secure for her son Franklin (Taylor Gregory). She falls in love easily with Mike and his quiet manner, but when she learns of his Klan ties, she commands him to choose the Klan or her. Riseborough’s performance is every bit as committed as Hedlund’s. She is great in this part, as a desperate mother, but also as a woman who is simply fed up. With relationships, with people, with nothing ever going her way.

Tom Wilkinson is also intense and terrifying as Tom Griffin, the man who raised Mike after his father died. As the patriarch of his dysfunctional KKK family, he is a man with deep ties to the town, with the police in his pocket. To cross him is to do so at your own peril, and that is not hyperbole.

Forest Whitaker is great, too, as the Reverend Kennedy. At first, his level of intensity doesn’t seem to fit in with the tone of the film. But it becomes apparent that Reverend Kennedy really is just more intense than everyone around him most of the time. Right at the moment his prayers and pleas start to feel too repetitive, he has a bit of a breakdown. Whitaker in that moment is so pure and honest.

The rest of the cast is made up of a collection of talented actors who might be a bit underutilized. Tess Harper, Usher Raymond IV, Austin Hébert, and Dexter Darden all make good use of their screen time.

What is interest about those actors feeling underutilized is the fact that the film’s one major flaw is that it feels too long. And it is. At 2 hours and 9 minutes, the film needed to be trimmed by at least 15 minutes. Some scenes drag a bit. Certain sequences intended to serve as flashbacks feel a bit out of place.

But overall, this is a story that is infuriating and beautiful. The fact that it’s true makes the journey worth it. Even when it is hard to watch—and it sometimes is—this is a story we need right now. In a world that is becoming increasingly divided over arbitrary things, it’s good to see an example of love overcoming hate.

There is no more important message now than that.

“Burden” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is looking for distribution.

GRADE: (★★★½)