Surprising, odd and clever; Burning Men plays with expectations and keeps the audience on its toes. A fresh take on the hackneyed British folk horror genre.
Ray and Don, played by Edward Hayter (To Dream, Will) and Aki Omoshaybi (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Riot Club) are the Burning Men, a Psychobilly/Blues band with cash issues and big dreams of playing the US. Whilst trying to raise some extra money Ray spots an opportunity to lay his hands on a rare, valuable vinyl. He swipes it from its owner ‘Mad Dad’ (Andrew Tiernan) and they take off on the run to find a buyer. As they come to learn, all with this rare disc is not as it seems.
The first half of the film plays as an offbeat road movie; two self-important musician characters with big aspirations, a beat up ‘classic’ car and some banging playlists to keep them company. In a smart move, the film never actually let us hear the band’s music, so we never quite know for sure if they are any good or not. Along the way, they meet a couple of girls and have a memorable night in an unoccupied static caravan; it is here that the film switches gears and starts to become something else entirely.
One of the girls, Susie, played by Elinor Crawley (Vikings, Submarine) joins the band for the remainder of the trip and things start to get weird. The band is pursued by a group of gangsters who want to get their hands on the stolen vinyl and Ray starts being plagued by demons. Throughout most of the film, the tone shifts back and forth, keeping you on your toes. Is Ray suffering from a mental health breakdown? Is the record they are carrying possessed by some supernatural force? Have they just taken too many drugs? It is not until the end of the movie that you know which of these is most at play.
The direction is a big part of the experience here. Jeremy Wooding (Peep Show, Blood Moon) borrows the point of view camera device he deployed to such great effect in Peep Show. As a big Peep Show fan, I found it a little disconcerting to start with and kept expecting to see Mark or Jeremy on screen, but quite quickly got my head around it. By using this camera style Wooding gives you a unique reference point where you can read expression and body language differently than you do in more conventional framing. In the context of this type of thriller it adds a new element that I can’t recall seeing anywhere else before, and to edit this type of camera work so well and keep it tight is an impressive achievement.
The camera does give the actors a lot of heavy lifting to do and most of the time they do this well. Crawley as Elinor stands out in her performance; we are not too sure most of the time of her motives, and she gives humanity and nuance what could have easily been a two-dimensional character. Credit to the screenwriters for resisting the temptation to insert a Yoko Ono joke into a script where a female changes the dynamic between two male musicians.
One thing that I did find a touch jarring was the sporadic use of voiceover. When it is used it is effective, but it is deployed inconsistently so when you do get it it’s a touch distracting and I wonder if it would have been better to be used more or scrapped altogether.
I can honestly say that I have never seen anything quite like Burning Men before, and that is always a positive thing. Blending the use of point of view camera angles with a constantly shifting plot that permanently keeps the audience wrong-footed, this film is original, smart and hard to pin down; in a good way.
Burning Men is released in select cinemas on 1st March, with a regional tour across the country. For more information, please head to https://bit.ly/