Say what you will about Burning Man, but writer-director Jonathan Teplitsky can’t be accused of spoon-feeding his audience. At first one might assume that Tom (Matthew Goode) is a sex addict, as he works his way through a procession of women with little regard for the young son he seemingly rarely sees. Whatever his issue may be, Tom’s life is defined by disorienting chaos. When he’s not in someone’s bed, he’s working long hours in the busy kitchen of a respected restaurant or pestering a woman who may or may not be his ex-wife. And then he gets into a brutal car collision whose aftermath is left ambiguous until near the end of the film.
Teplitsky obliterates any notion of present tense. Burning Man, the title both figurative and literal, is a series of fantasies and flashbacks and flash-forwards that convincingly establish Tom as a man unmoored from his life. The rapid-fire editing, breathless syntax, and chronological mish-mashing are justified because Tom, never truly in any given moment of his life, is careening from one sensation to the next.
It turns out, spoilers herein, that Tom’s recently lost his wife, Sarah (Bojana Novakovic), to cancer, thus provoking him to seek the services of expensive prostitutes who’re instructed to dress in a manner reminiscent of her. These trysts, unusually erotic for contemporary cinema, are interspersed with contextually heartbreaking remembrances of Tom and Sarah making love.
Burning Man is ambitious, and its willingness to show the ugly narcissistic side of grief is noteworthy. But Teplitsky fails to convey a sense of the casual everyday existence that’s been violated by Sarah’s death. Every scene expresses a different volatile emotional tempo, and so we’re never allowed to get a sense of Tom, Sarah, and their friends and family as anyone other than People Gripped by Tragedy. This approach is clearly purposeful and often effective, but there’s still an inescapable whiff of pat macho pugilism to the proceedings (grief tends to bring out a fetishism of self-destruction in male filmmakers), which is exasperated by Tom’s various quite-willing lovers, all of whom are ideal heterosexual masturbatory fantasies that readily bare their perfect C-cups. There are intense and emotionally truthful moments in Burning Man, but it too often resembles the much worse Shame in its preoccupation with despair as a fashion accessory to a chic wet dream.