Looking at the catalogue of films writer/director Mike Gan has developed, each film appears to deal with the darker sides of humanity. This is not to say that there aren’t protagonists, but that they are muddied and never completely wholesome. In his first feature film, Burn, Gan pushes the audience further than they may be comfortable as perception and expectation collide in surprising and disturbing ways. The premise is a simple one and the whole story takes place in a singular location, centered on what only the lead character experiences. It’s incredibly effective at generating a notion of isolation, initially endearing Tilda Cobham-Hervey’s Melinda to the audience, however, as things escalate, the darker the subtext of the story becomes, the more difficult it is to look upon Melinda without some sense of horror.
On an average evening for the grave shift clerks at the Paradise Pump gas station, Sheila (Suki Waterhouse) gets hit on by the men who come through and Melinda mostly gets ignored. This, of course, doesn’t deter Melinda from maintaining an overly eager-to-please demeanor no matter how often she gets emotionally stomped on. Things seem destined for change when Billy (Josh Hutcherson) arrives, talking sweetly to both girls before revealing a gun and his unfortunate need to clear out the registers and the store safe so he can pay off debts to a gang of bikers. At first, Melinda is all too eager to help, seeing Billy as a kindred spirit, but when even he rebuffs her, Melinda’s barely-held-together confidence is shattered, sending her spiraling without concern or apprehension for the consequences.
*While many details are going to be kept out of the review, be advised of a trigger warning for the whole of Burn as it does feature self-abuse and sexual assault.*
Enormous credit to Gan for the tightness of his story and the boldness of the approach. For all intents and purposes, Burn is a bottle film wherein all the events take place on or around the Paradise Pumps. Characters are never shown further than the parking lot or back door and none are followed where Melinda isn’t physically. This presents several challenges in order to maintain tension, which Gan handles wonderfully. In a scene where Billy removes Sheila to the backroom of the station, the audience can only hear muffled noises from the back as Melinda moves to the coffee pot. Up until now, things have been fairly calm, even if tense, until Sheila’s smart-mouth supercharges Billy’s rage. Sheila’s certainly not been presented as sympathetic, yet the impending violence upon her person is disquieting, especially when it comes from a character portrayed by Hutcherson, an actor who tends to take on gentler roles. Adding to the tension, when Melinda intervenes, all Gan uses is a front-facing angle so that we see Sheila in a chair, Billy over her, as Melinda comes into frame from behind. We don’t see all of Sheila, only that she’s sitting and struggling with Billy’s grip. As quickly as we see this, it all goes away when Melinda attacks Billy. In the aftermath, the camera barely moves as Melinda comes in and out of frame, moving herself and Billy to where she wants. The control in the camerawork is as purposeful as Melinda’s slow, deliberate movements and only places into frame what is important in the moment. Credit also to Cobham-Hervey for her performance which teeters on mechanical, conveying the depth of her growing disassociation. Additionally, there are several natural escalations throughout Burn that are handled in a similarly smart manner. For example, what would you do if the police officer you have a crush on comes by? Or if you suddenly realize there’re monitoring devices everywhere, but you don’t have the key to access them? Each of these situations, and more, are brought up and addressed in such a way that they don’t seem disingenuous or unnatural.
Strong control of the narrative and direction are only two pieces of a complicated puzzle, especially in the case of Burn. With the exception of two characters, Officer Liu (Harry Shum Jr.) and Sheila’s boyfriend Perry (Shiloh Fernandez), everyone else, on paper, is pretty terrible and it’s hard to feel any kind of compassion for them. If not for the performances from Cobham-Hervey, Waterhouse, and, yes, even from Hutcherson, there’s little reason to care for any of them. None of the characters, save for Billy, are irredeemable, yet their presentations aren’t meant to entice the audience into feeling anything other than, it seems, derision. Sheila’s unkind to Melinda at literally every opportunity and Billy’s got self-described anger issues while dealing with a life-or-death situation in which he owes money to a nasty group of gentlemen. Melinda is first positioned as the type of person who is sweet to the point of being a doormat, but it’s later revealed that she actually possesses deeper issues of trauma which manifest via self-harm. This should, in some regard, put the audience on her side, as they want her to triumph as any typical final girl in a thriller may, and Cobham-Hervey’s performance certainly wants you to feel that way. Except Gan, bold to be sure, adds something into the mix which decidedly places Melinda in a category of maleficence not typically seen in cinema.
Any discussion of Burn must include mention of Gan’s use of self-harm within the construction of Melinda’s character and arc. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, “[s]elf-harm is not a mental illness, but a behavior that indicates a lack of coping skills.” In one scene, after being rebuffed by Billy, Melinda pours hot coffee on her hand and palm. This is not the first form of self-inflicted injury the audience has seen or will see, but up to this point, it’s the most violent thing we’ve seen her do to her person thus far. Gan’s already set Melinda up as socially awkward, but moments like these push the narrative that Melinda’s also suffering from a lack of coping skills and potentially even a deeper form of trauma. Between Cobham-Hervey’s performance and Gan’s script, this is made abundantly clear from the start. Melinda is an individual in desperate need of feeling connected to someone, anyone. She tries talking to the customers and frequently gets rebuked, Sheila is dismissive and insulting, and the one guy she likes she doesn’t imagine could ever like her back, so she takes photos of him from a distance. This dissociation from society creates the opportunity for the story to take place as designed by Gan. Graciously, as written and performed, Melinda is not stupid either. Her choices may not make sense in the moment, but she’s able to reconsider and take stock of her actions with considerable savvy. It’s fair to say that the use of self-harm as a character attribute may evoke some concern from audiences who are aware of cinema’s tendency to weaponize the disabled, mentally ill, or some form of “other.” Any audience would be right to be concerned about this, especially since Melinda becomes less and less amenable throughout the film. On the positive side, the script itself acknowledges the unhealthy behavior, even if it’s addressed by increasingly terrible people.
Burn is a totally deceptive thriller. It lulls the audience into thinking it’ll be a clear-cut case of innocence versus villainy, but by the halfway point, the line’s been blurred so many times that the point becomes obscured. One thing is for certain, that Gan’s particular view is intended to be restorative. Via Melinda, he states that “fire forces a thing to change” and it “heals back to what it was.” This is an interesting notion and one which implies that healing requires force and intensity, perhaps even pain, in order to overcome. Considering where Melinda ends up at the conclusion of the film, it all but confirms the suspicion of Gan’s POV. However, while the point of the film may be clear, the manner in which it tells its story is far from enjoyable. Pain may be the beginning of healing, but there also needs to be reflection and contrition, attributes Melinda doesn’t seem capable of. With this in mind, Burn is a thriller whose embers don’t reveal something fresh and renewed, but a form gnarled and beyond repair. Thanks to Cobham-Hervey, the audience does feel something in the form of sympathy, but nothing more than that.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital August 23rd, 2019.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.