The difficulties of cultural assimilation are expressed with clunky precision in Burn Country, an overwrought melodrama that’s also undercooked in its lack of formal conception. Fashionably anemic lighting strips away any potential vibrancy within numerous shots, so that characters are willfully thrown into a dour noir terrain without a display of wit, irony, or even much earnest delight in the storytelling to carry them through. Writer-director Ian Olds has no qualms about letting the film wear its influences on its sleeve; the latter half is full-on Cormac McCarthy fan fiction, ratcheting up the story’s grimy conditions and violent outbursts with nothing to show for its efforts other than an attempt at capital-I important cinema by way of association.
The film’s early scenes intrigue for their loose ends, even as there’s little hard-edged filmmaking on display. Osman (Dominic Rains), an Afghan journalist, lands in Northern California following an unspecified exile, where he’s taken in by Gloria (Melissa Leo), a local police officer. Olds and co-writer Paul Felten adeptly configure the film’s primary narrative thrust, with Osman’s bid to become a staff writer for the town’s daily newspaper thwarted not by incident or explicit racism, but through a genuine lack of available work. A simple and effective point of departure, the obstacle results in Osman taking a feeble gig writing up police reports, which eventually morphs into him unofficially investigating a local family of serial criminals.
Whatever potential grace notes these opening developments contain are quickly thwarted once Osman is befriended by Lindsay (James Franco), a knuckleheaded handyman whose only proficiency seems to be his delinquency in paying his debts to local crime rings. Franco, sporting long hair and a hick accent, is woefully out of place within the film’s grim environs; the hackneyed character distracts from the groundedness of Osman’s fish-out-of-water thread with ill-conceived displays of strained oddity, culminating in an exchange where Lindsay refers to himself as the “goddamn tickle monster” while giving Osman a lift and, yes, trying to tickle him.
As Burn Country unfolds, its narrative tentacles knot into one dead end after another and progressively neglect to elucidate the specifics of Osman’s past with either geopolitical commentary or a straightforward psychological reading of his uncertain grip on reality. Instead, Osman becomes one of several pawns in the filmmakers’ game of noir-inflected chess, which includes Sandra (Rachel Brosnahan), a femme fatale type whose sexual interest in Osman turns out to be more ruse than real.
Olds’s determination to maximize Burn Country’s potential as a thriller forsakes Osman’s interiority and obscures the specificity of his case, but it prevents a greater point about the lure of willful misperception from taking shape. Osman arrives in California thinking it will offer a respite or permanent retreat from his persecution in Afghanistan, but, as Gloria teases him early on, the state isn’t all beaches and bikinis. Similarly, the film doesn’t have to be all scowls and concealed weapons, but it seems to miss the irony of its own narrative by becoming exactly that. For a film that warns against believing in a mirage, Burn Country seems all too comfortable perpetuating one.