Burning ★★★★½

This was my first screening at the Milwaukee Film Festival. I have four more to go. This was also my first ever festival screening experience in general. DEFINITELY WON’T BE MY LAST.

Suspense is defined as the anticipation of the outcome of a plot or of the solution to an uncertainty, puzzle, or mystery, particularly as it affects a character for whom one has sympathy. This in turn generates tension via anxiety, fear, & doubt as a result of this uncertainty. Suspense & tension go hand in hand, & a horror/thriller film is nothing without tension, so suspense is often mentioned in regards to these genres. This isn’t to say that horror/thriller films don’t have suspense, but I think people often confuse tension & suspense, as the former is the byproduct of the latter. Rather, suspense belongs more in the mystery genre than anything, as the act of suspense plays with the unknown to an extreme. Suspense is purely withholding, be it answers, explanations, backstory, causes, or effects. It suspends you, if you will, with no promise of letting you down.

In regards to the definition above...Burning might be the most suspenseful motion picture ever made.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen ambiguity done so perfectly. This is one of the most elusive, mysterious movies I’ve ever seen, with practically zero answers; & that’s what makes it a masterpiece. It’s like connect the dots in that we’re never really given the full picture, & the dots are scrambled with an incredibly vague outline. Yet these dots are so well defined on their own that they invite the viewer in on a quest to make the full picture; this is one of the most involving narratives for audiences I’ve ever seen. It’s a mystery, & a fantastic one at that, yet much of the mystery is in why to get invested, & trying to figure out what the conflict even is. And I don’t mean that in a bad way (though it was hard for me to invest early on); it didn’t have tension early on, yet it was always intriguing & kept moving at a steady pace, building the world & people in it magnificently. Where most movies would start their conflict after enough exposition at perhaps the 30-40 minute mark, this 2.5 hour film doesn’t introduce explicit tension/agency/drive until well past halfway. And I love it all the more for it.

The character constructions are nothing short of fabulous. It’s slow early on, yet every moment is vital in retrospect even if it seems like filler. The editing really shines in creating a protagonist who is authentically introverted, lives a boring life, & lacks motivation. The other two characters in this ménage a trois are similarly open ended with enough three dimensional qualities to ground them, yet are each unreliable in giving our audience stand-in narrative catharsis. There are what you could perceive as twists in this film, yet they could be just as meaningless. You really experience the film with the protagonist, & the climactic action he takes at the end will create a divide in the audience as to the validity of his justification.

This movie is an aesthetic wonder. I didn’t think I’d say this in the year of Hereditary’s release, but this is the best cinematography I’ve seen all year; maybe some of the best of all time. The darkness of dusk hasn’t been captured this well since It Follows or Sicario, & the landscapes overall are beautiful. The choices of angles, perspective, & distance of shooting are all motivated, while the framing/compositions are staggering; almost Renaissance in nature. The sound mixing/ambience is perfect, establishing realistic atmosphere so that you feel like you’re really there; it’s a minute detail but the way the air pressure changes when a window indoors is opened is immersive & accurate. The music was phenomenal, & the restraint in when it was used made proceedings feel heavier & weighted. It also made me appreciate the score more, due to its infrequency. There were also so many glorious long takes; couldn’t have been happier.

When it comes to subtext, it gets hard. I think looking at the surface level is just as fulfilling; this is a piece-it-together narrative where the characters’ relationships dictate how you see the story, which is enough on its own. Still, symbolically, the film is about cleansing, absolving, & moving on right down to its title. Fire destroys to start anew; preservative iconography or objects with emotional history are razed to start again. I can’t say more without spoiling it; I’ve already said too much.

One of the best things you can say about a movie is that you don’t want it to end. There were fades to black where I was genuinely afraid it was over; I wanted it to just keep going & going. In regards to my first festival experience, and for the Milwaukee Film Festival, I could not have started off on a better foot.

In regards to flaws, I only have a few; it’s really a concept-execution thing. Dialogue early on is expository in a painful way when introducing conflict & characters. There’s also a lot of handheld camerawork early on that I wasn’t a huge fan of, though visually it oddly improved as it went on. This film has an unrelenting momentum that just builds & builds & builds, slowly but surely. The payoff is more than worth it, & the strengths everywhere else more than outweigh the cons in justifying my rating/grade.

Some snooty critical blurbs I thought of while watching:

“A slow burn (pun intended) that never really catches fire (pun intended I am so sorry).”

“It’s high key 🔥 FIRE 🔥. “

“It’s 🔥 LIT 🔥. “

Best of the year so far. Mainstream audiences will HATE it, but if you’re patient/adventurous, you won’t regret it. Grade: A+

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