Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) is a lonely gas station worker regularly feeling unnoticed and unappreciated. Early scenes provide the viewer with ample evidence for why Melinda has become so unhappy: her co-worker Sheila (Suki Waterhouse) coerces her into performing the most degrading, physically demanding jobs like cleaning toilets, while the customers refuse to thank her and lavish attention on Sheila instead. When the mysterious and troubled Billy (Josh Hutcherson) suddenly attempts to rob the station at gunpoint, Melinda finally begins to show other people how far she’s unravelled.
BURN is at its best when making inventive use of its claustrophobic setting to ramp up tension and back characters into often-literal corners. For instance, the cramped employee break room initially hosts awkward back and forths between Billy and Melinda, only for this to suddenly become a disturbing sexual assault, then a frantic game of hide and seek. Later on, as a police officer walks down a long corridor between the shop floor and the scene of a crime, the viewer feels Melinda’s heart beat faster with each step.
In the broadest possible sense though, Melinda is a weird and frustrating lead. The sheer specificity of her idiosyncrasies and obsessions make me sure that Gan had quite a specific vision in mind for her, but not enough of this ultimately ended up onscreen. As it stands, Cobham-Hervey delivers a suitably creepy performance to pique the viewers’ curiosity, but is too vague and icy for us to care what happens. Even if Gan didn’t want to show backstory, at least making passing references could’ve gone a long way to capturing a more precise characterisation. A key example of this is her long-standing obsession with Officer Liu (Harry Shum Jr.) which, while intriguing, isn’t explained in detail.
Furthermore, BURN struggles to come up with links between its more dynamic sequences, rendering the second half less satisfying. Hutcherson is absent for much of this stretch of the film (I won’t spoil why), a void which Gan fills by having Melinda largely resume her nightly work duties and try to keep cool about the preceding events. The result is surprisingly formulaic: a one-off character approaches Melinda with a query, a stray line of dialogue makes it seem as though all might inadvertently be revealed, but then it isn’t. It all simply feels like it doesn’t matter whether the audience is paying attention to these ‘scenes between scenes’, a problem exacerbated by the lifeless, smalltalk-esque dialogue.
Despite its shortcomings, BURN is a solid proof of concept for Mike Gan’s directorial style, showcasing his talent for both the genre, and coaxing unique performances from actors. I suspect that Tilda Cobham-Hervey is the main aspect of this film that viewers will remember, but I would also argue that the structure underneath her oddball turn is even better.