Contemporary Australian writer/director Jonathon Teplitzky, the man behind Getting’ Square and Better than Sex seems uniquely capable of elevating his films out of ‘Australiana’ status by bagging excellent leading men. Out of three major releases he’s cast Sam Worthington, now top swag of the Na’vi, David Wenham (known alternately as Faramir or Diver Dan) and now Matthew Goode, who sparkled as the manipulative yet suave Ozymandias in Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Moore classic Watchmen. Burning Man is something of a one-man-show; a biography of the period after acute grief when one may regress into impulsive pandemonium.
Burning Man is a reeling, kaleidoscopic and hectically visual account of English ex-pat Tom’s (Matthew Goode) struggle to deal with the various, fragmented parts of his life after the loss of his young wife Sarah (Bojana Novakovic) to cancer. Tom is left to raise his bright but forlorn son Oscar, maintain the all-hours timetable of head chef and restaurateur at an upmarket Bondi Beach eatery, and manage his growing penchant for abusing strangers and sleeping with even stranger women.
The term ‘fractured timeline’ mightn’t cut it here. You might think of a charming cyclical story from a Tarantino film or Donnie Darko’s flash-backs/forwards/sideways, and you’d be way off. Burning Man is literally one long montage. Not one single scene cuts to another that is consecutive in timeline, and I very much doubt there were more than a handful of scenes that lasted more than a minute. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle when you first shake all the pieces out of a box. Replace “sky, sky, brick, flowers, cow’s face, cobbles” with “hospital, prostitute, awkward dinner, clinic, kitchen, lobster, car crash, prostitute” and you’re about there.
This is not to say that each cut-to isn’t logical or explanatory or even appropriate, however in a film which I suspect has over 100 rapid fire time-changes, not every one of them is likely to make sense. This kind of music-video approach is something that gets easier to watch as the film goes on, but can at times be dizzying, tiring, and most especially it repeatedly cuts short the construction of sympathetic connections between audience and characters.
The primary problem with this kind of structure is that the first third of the film is spent in uncertainty. The story slowly weaves itself together, gradually revealing the significance of earlier motifs or dialogues over the course of the feature. This spelt chronic problems. I spent the first forty minutes labouring under the impression that Oscar’s mother was a character called Karen (an elegant performance by Essie Davis), but Karen turned out to be his Aunt, a deliberate ‘twist’ to throw us off the scent. What’s that about?
Clearly we are not meant to know why Tom is angry with the world straight away. That Sarah even exists, and that she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer is only revealed at about the halfway point. Up until then Burning Man could be a study on Aspergers’, where the audience is unable to connect with unfolding events, because they are locked out of understanding their significance, and can’t yet decipher who is wrong, right, good, bad, friend or foe. On the other hand, yes, it can be fun to watch a film where one must connect-the-dots, solve the intrigues, but this is a film about a man going off the rails because his wife died. Is it appropriate to be pulling an Agatha Christie level of riddles when every ‘aha!’ moment is in relation to a tragic memory or physical pain?
What is clear in this story, regardless of whether one is aware that a decade ago, Teplitzky lost his own partner to long-term illness, is that there are significant lashings of autobiography here. I would stop short of accusing Teplitzky of partaking in film-therapy, however I would also not call his screenplay an homage to his partner, or a true portrait of grief. It seems more than anything else to be a film about coping with anger, regardless of its source, and perhaps ill advisedly this movie tends to glamourize that anger. Tom is portrayed as a man of searing passions, with an insatiable appetite for sex, food and drama. His grief is outweighed in screen time by his good looks.
Surely it is Teplitzky’s immodest autobiographical hand that has disabled the Tom character from ever really seeming pathetic, depressed or pitiable. Even in what should be the darkest scenes, Tom is cracking jokes, never a hair out of place, never in danger of having to deal with the consequences of his recklessness. What’s more, I suspect that Teplitzky hasn’t realised that embedding Sarah’s memory so deeply and consistently throughout the story makes it difficult to really flesh out Tom’s state of loss.
I really had a problem with the intrusiveness and emotional suggestion of the musical score in Burning Man. By necessity it flickered with the same rapidity as the changing scenes. It’s surely fair to say that people do not experience music in short, endless streams like they do images. Burning Man’s restless jukebox of micro-lamentations and mini-aspirational symphonic numbers seemed a bit silly.
Despite this, the music is quite powerful. It’s that midday movie stuff that really gets you in the gullet, even though you know the scene is saccharine, and indeed it’s effect is even stronger in Burning Man when one is worn out from the relentless intrigue. I have long suspected that the emotional impact sound can have on an audience is primarily a matter of physiology. We react strongly to high pitched sounds – wailing strings during hospital bed slow-motion conjures a deluge of silent tears, while screeching Psycho or Jaws peels literally make our hairs stand on end. Also the tireder we are, the more susceptible we might be. Perhaps this theory simply helps me explain away the fact I passed out a little bit in 127 Hours or that The Lion King’s Circle of Life bit deposited a miserable golf ball in my gulping gullet. But I don’t doubt its centrality to the emotional hook in Burning Man.
Matthew Goode as Tom is a spectacular presence. He is in almost every scene, and is required to play a character out of sequence, living in varying states of emotional composure in the past, the future, or whenever the present might be. Goode is a sound navigator in a film other actors would surely get lost in; confused by the house of mirrors that is Teplitzky’s plot. It takes an intelligent performer to keep his head in one scene when so many others loom on the horizon.
Burning Man is a very beautiful film. All the characters, the sets and the mis-en-scene are attractive, romantic. The opening sequence in which Tom hurtles through three full flips of his mid-totalled car amidst a veritable cornucopia of fresh ingredients is perhaps the most stylish and visceral moment of the whole film.
So, what is a Burning Man? It seems to be a person who should be wracked by guilt but is too angry, fidgety and enveloped by their own fleshly lusts that they cannot find peace. More than this, I think a Burning Man is a person whose pain is obscured by the beauty of fast-flickering flames. This film could be telling a simple, relatable story, but instead has been set alight with lavish structural complexities, plot twists, beautiful actors, and pictorial metaphors. Tom and Teplitzky both are burning men, unable to communicate through the viscera, entirely lost to the hypnosis of orangey tongues of fire.