Rachel Brosnahan and Dominic Rains in "Burn Country" (Samuel Goldwyn)
One of this year’s most arresting performances comes from Dominic Rains in Burn Country. It’s the story of Osman (Rains), a fixer and journalist who, after experiencing his share of trials and trauma in Afghanistan, finds refuge in a sleepy Northern California town. Though the movie is fiction, director/scribe Ian Olds and co-writer Paul Felten drew from Olds’ 2009 documentaryFixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi.
“This film specifically as inspired by a documentary I made in Afghanistan,” said Olds. “I was working with an Afghan fixer and translator and an American journalist. I was trying to tell a story of the larger war and also this relationship with the fixer. We were back in the states and he ended up being kidnapped and murdered. We went back with a sense of obligation to finish that story and after we finished that film, the other fixer we worked with ended up getting asylum in the West and found himself facing a totally different challenge. He had spent his entire life trying to get out of Afghanistan and now here he was, facing this existential crisis of ‘what do I do now’?”
Osman’s journey in his new environment is a perilous one even though he starts off on the right foot. His living situation is stable, as he lives with Gloria (Melissa Leo), a sheriff’s deputy and mother to his journalist friend (James Oliver Wheatley). Although she warns him to stay away from a troubled man’s (James Franco) business, his innate curiosity keeps him moving towards danger.
“All of a sudden he’s in this new town where he’s being asked to write the police blotter and it’s so far on the other end of the spectrum with what he is used to in terms of trauma and the drama,” said Rains. “He wants to go to that place. That’s all he knows – is to go to that place. Yes there is a dark underbelly (with the town), but it’s not like the dark underbelly of Afghanistan. He’s manifested (this belief) that when a death happens, a hole opens in world. What if all he knows is seeing that hole? He’s in this Northern California town and he’s looking for that hole – and that’s all he knows.”
Now playing in select theaters and available On Demand, Burn Country also stars Rachel Brosnahan (Patriots Day).
Finding your way in this world is tricky business, and in Burn Country we witness that journey in the form of Osman (Dominic Rains), a translator/fixer from Afghanistan. Osman has moved to Northern California to escape the violence of his environment, and his journalist colleague Gabe’s (James Oliver Wheatley) has offered him a place to stay in a remote town in Northern California.
Gloria (an always engaged Melissa Leo) is Gabe’s mother Gloria, a sheriff’s deputy who welcomes Osman with open arms. But there is a reason the phrase a “stranger in a strange land” often rings true, as Osman realizes that things are not exactly what they seem in his new neighborhood.
Believing he was promised a reporting job at the local paper, Osman is instead relegated to a $50 a week gig as a police blotter writer. Though initially scoffing at this low paying job, Osman sees this as a way to better know the community. Whether it’s befrending members of a theater troupe (Rachael Brosnahan is Sandra, an unfettered actress who catches his eye) or attempting to aid an unhinged local named Lindsay (James Franco in the story’s showiest role), Osman is fully engaged into uncovering the town’s secrets.
Though a dead body is discovered on the side of a backwoods road and a dangerous chase through relatively unseen country are all part of the narrative, Burn Country’s focus is on Osman’s interior life. Whenever a death occurs, Osman believes a hole opens up in the Earth that is hard to fill or maybe even comprehend. Many face such a life changing event by looking the other way and moving on, but our protagonist chooses the road less traveled.
Director Ian Olds and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra bring a fluid, arresting visual style to the proceedings, and the picture is often a sight to behold during some of Oswald’s more sublime discoveries (most notably his nascent love for the ocean). The story, co-written by Olds, is partly inspired by his 2009 documentary Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, and the director’s knowledge of journalist/fixer relationships is subtly rendered to supreme effect with Burn Country.
During Osman’s quixotic mission to uncover the truth, he encounters his share of often heartbreaking setbacks. But Osman has seen tragedy unfold many times before, and it’s that world weariness, inextricably coupled with a profound hope for some comfort, which makes him a living, breathing character. A huge amount of credit goes to the innately charismatic Rains, who brings an introspective depth to the role.
Under different hands, Burn Country could have succeeded as a backwoods, film noir-ish thriller that was littered with scenery chewing performances and viscerally charged moments. Though this film lightly traverses such territory, Olds creates a narrative that continues to simmer long after the credits roll. Some viewers may crave a more operatic climax to Osman’s refreshingly labyrinthine tale, but sometimes life’s third act is played in half measures. There is a ton of mystery that simply can’t be solved or wounds that can’t be healed in this life, and watching Osman valiantly struggle through that process turns Burn Country into a sublime cinematic experience.
Burn Country is now playing in theaters and is available On Demand.