Erstwhile Peep Show director Jeremy Wooding infuses ye olde British folk horror tradition with a touch of ye new in Burning Men. The film offers an experience quite probably like no other in cinemas this year – thanks largely to the poetic oddness of Wooding’s script – and boasts a ‘you saw her here first turn’ by star of tomorrow Elinor Crawley. If the ramshackle creativity of the production struggles rather with its limited financial reach, Wooding’s unique directorial approach proves increasingly compelling.
The film is part rock ‘n’ roll road movie, part chiller and has supernatural overtones. There are flashes of humour, a youthful energy and a touch of the macabre. Edward Hayter and Aki Omoshaybi play two in a stoner three-piece rock band, who decide to ditch London for the bright lights of Memphis after Ray (Hayter) discovers his girlfriend sleeping with the troupe’s bassist. They’ve also been evicted from their flat by burly bailiffs but such is a lesser concern. More pressing is their need to fund said Tennessee getaway. How? By selling their beloved vinyls.
On learning that the entire collection amounts to just £150 – ‘it’s a tough commercial world, got to be über rare these days’ – Ray steals a black metal acetate said to be worth thousands. A vinyl fair in a Great Yarmouth church hall is their best bet for a sale but somehow their journey takes them from London to Norfolk, to Northumbria and the holy island of Lindisfarne. Ben Wheatley strikes as an obvious reference, whilst there‘s a Wicker Man rhythm below the surface.
Some will call Wooding’s persistent use of dizzying ‘Point of View’ framing a gimmick and distraction. For the first ten minutes or so, they may well be right. Though the effect is designed to invoke empathy and intimacy between viewer and leads, Ray and Don – a nod to Ray Donovan? – lack the depth of character needed for this to fly. Clumsy plotting introduces the horror twist, while too little is known about Ray for us to instantly realise that it is unusual for him to spuriously quote William Blake in sporadic fields. If Hayter and Omoshaybi struggle with the initial flatness, things do at least pick up. Indeed, later dramatic twists do much to justify Wooding’s quirky camerawork and the arrival of Crawley – as hitchhiker Susie – brings a much earthier sense of humanity. There is nothing particularly novel about Susie – nor her vapid friend Gemma (Katie Collins), for that matter – and yet there is something about Crawley that makes it work. A flair not so far removed from Olivia Colman’s early career spike in Peep Show.
Perhaps a heightened awareness of the potent comic potential of the hapless characters of Ray and Don, not to mention their bizarre black metal worshiping foes, would have been welcome but it’s hard to complain too much with Wooding’s tonal proficiency in capturing the aura of the eerie. The mellow symphonic strains of Justin Adams’ guitar backdrop well matches the film’s gruelling cinematographic landscape, while there’s balance provided by Wooding’s deferral to occasional wide shots. These are valuable deep breaths of serenity amid the film’s more frenetic energies and better allow Jono Smith’s photography to shine. Such restraint is lacking in the film’s rather ropey effects. Less is always more, even when budgets stretch broader than that afforded Wooding and company. The flaming scarecrows here are a low point.
In spite of its flaws, Burning Men has the quality of a potential cult classic for the future. For all the shonk, the ramshackle essence and slippery writing, Wooding draws you in and nails the bite.