2018 | DIR: ANDREW HECKLER | STARRING: GARRETT HEDLUND, ANDREA RISEBOROUGH, FOREST WHITAKER, TOM WILKINSON, TESS HARPER, USHER RAYMOND, CRYSTAL FOX, DEXTER DARDEN, TAYLOR GREGORY | REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
Spearheading this white supremacist enterprise is local KKK leader Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson) who also happens to be the adopted father of up-and-coming KKK member Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) and the one, we come to understand, who Tom sees as his likely successor. Outrage and opposition to the Redneck Store comes, unsurprisingly, from the local black community headed up by the Reverend David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) who, despite having had an uncle lynched by the Klan, espouses the Martin Luther King doctrine of non-violent protest and the idea that love will conquer all. When Mike meets and falls for local single mother, Judy and her son Franklin (Andrea Riseborough and Taylor Gregory) he soon finds that he has to choose between his ‘Klan’ family and the new family he’s creating with Judy and her son. Faced with this choice, Mike turns his back on Tom, his fellow Klansmen and the Redneck Store and when they seek revenge on him, he finds unexpected refuge in the home of Reverend Kennedy, despite the tensions it causes with Kennedy’s wife Janice (Crystal Fox) and especially his son Kelvin (Dexter Darden).
You could choose to tell this story as a clash of beliefs and ideals as embodied in the characters of Griffin and Kennedy played by Wilkinson and Whittaker, two very fine character actors. Head to head, they’d promise some mighty scenes of conflict and outstanding acting. But this version of the story doesn’t go that way. In fact, these two powerhouse actors hardly have more than a couple of lacklustre scenes with each other.
You could choose to tell this story through the lens of the generational conflict between a father and a son, as David and Kelvin grapple with two opposing views of how to tackle racism and terrorism – the Reverend believing in pacifist love, and his son believing in more direct and forceful action. Those elements are there, but not at the heart of this telling.
You could choose to tell this story through the internal conflict of Mike Burden whose almost forgotten childhood friendship with Judy’s African-American friend Clarence Brooks (Usher Raymond) is now reflected through the friendship between Franklin and Brook’s son and could so easily have caused Burden to rethink the white doctrine that his adopted father has taught him. But, despite Mike Burden being the centre of the telling of this version of the story, it’s not a revelation about racism that makes him question and repudiate his allegiance to the Klan; it’s the fact that Judy makes him choose. In other words, there is no revelation that what the KKK stands for and what he’s supported all his life does not provide a path to equality and a better humanity. He leaves the Klan for the love of a white woman.
In some regards, this is a very timely story given the world wide focus on Black Lives Matter that has coincided with its release (although it was first seen at Sundance a couple of years ago, it’s only now seeing the more general-public light of day). But the timeliness of the story is undermined by its telling being focused through the lens of a young white man whose spurious denial of his racist roots somehow saves the black community from the indignity of the KKK’s intent. The dominance of white culture overwhelms what could so easily have been a ‘black lives matter’ story.
And things aren’t helped by the highly mannered and mostly hollow performance of Hedlund. He’s all loose limbs, attitude and muttered dialogue that seems more concerned with his accent work than with connecting his lines to either his body or the story. The screenplay, by first-time writer/director Andrew Heckler, tries to add some depth to the character of Mike Burden through the childhood memory of a hunting trip with his real father and the tired old trope of the ‘first kill making a man of the boy’. It doesn’t do much to help the character other than make the story even more about him, and the revisiting of this motif at the end of the film seems awkward and contrived.
By contrast, Riseborough is terrific as Judy as are Fox and Darden as Kennedy’s wife and son. But the standout (for me. At least) is Usher who turns in a warm and compelling performance that has all the depth and subtlety that’s lacking in Hedlund’s role. This, together with the underused talents of Whitaker and Wilkinson and the level to which Tess Harper (as Griffin’s wife Hazel) is almost entirely ignored, compounds the seemingly wasted opportunity that arises from the choices Heckler has made in how he’s written the screenplay. Instead of inspiring me with hope for how the black and white communities might come together for a better world, it leaves me frustrated at being able to see the movie that could have been through the disappointment of the movie that is.