There’s a stigma regarding Australian films that they’re either failed comedies or entirely depressing, with only a handful of exceptions. This stigma isn’t entirely undeserved, although the argument may also be that depressing subject matter doesn’t necessarily equal a bad movie.
Burning Man is a 2011 film starring Matthew Goode as Tom, an English chef living in Australia, whose life is falling apart around him. He struggles to reconnect with his estranged young son, while filling his life (and bed) with women and short-term sexual encounters.
The story is told with a mixed chronology, and barely introduces us to Tom before we’re shown vignettes of him being a complete dick to pretty much everyone he encounters. That the characters that already know him are standing by him, and expressing concern over his actions suggests that this may not be his true nature. There’s also the mystery of his troubled son, who seems to be acting out in response to something, which the film doesn’t reveal in its early scenes.
Of course, as the film goes on, it reveals what’s happened to Tom and his son, and the links are there to make sense of what’s gone on before and reframe it in a clearer, more understandable light. The problem with this is that the introductory scenes of Tom’s dickishness distance the viewer from ever really sympathising with him, or at the very least make it a much harder task once its revealed why our sympathies should be offered.
That’s not to say it’s a failure of a film. It’s incredibly hard to connect with Tom as a character (despite a very good turn from Matthew Goode), but the revelations of what’s going on in his life are handled delicately, and are incredibly moving. It certainly makes sense of the earlier scenes, even if the knowledge comes too late.
Many will overlook the brashness of his character and be brought to tears by the film – it’s not done in such a way as to evoke cheap tragedy as a date movie, and tears are possibly deserved. The film is a tragic mystery, but I feel that a bit more insight into Tom early on would have had me more involved in that mystery.
It’s certainly a good film. Maybe even a great one, despite its narrative flaw. It follows the route of the aforementioned stigma (the material is depressing) but it manages to create an uplifting story by the time the credits roll. This movie about a tragedy doesn’t resign itself to being purely tragic. It may fall in line with the stereotypical view of Australian films, but if that stereotype leads to very good movies, I don’t have too much of an issue with that.
I know I’ve only mentioned Matthew Goode and Tom at this point, but I’ll also mention that Essie Davis and Bojana Novakovic turn in astounding (and more interesting) performances as Sarah and Karen, but to say why would be to give too much away.