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.