Directed by: Alan Parker
Company: Orion Pictures Production
Runtime: 128 minutes
This film was very controversial due to its fictionalization of events and on how political it was. I would just like to amend my latter statement – it was indeed very political.
The film is about two FBI agents, Anderson and Ward, who tries to solve the case involving three civil rights activists in Mississippi. Ward wants the subject face to face. But Anderson, on the other hand, knows the racial prejudices that is happening, and with the heated notoriety of the Ku Klux Klan, he takes it piece by piece. Evidences continue to show up, and Ward and Anderson continue to clash in their work. In the process, we see several terrorism by the whites to the black community.
Meanwhile, Anderson meets Mrs. Pell, a conflicted housewife. She’s a tough woman, but she’s cautious by what’s happening. She is married to a man that is indeed part of the KKK. Anderson and Ward both get developments in their jobs, and the prejudices heat up. Until both decided to fight the culprit, dead or alive.
First of all, like what I have said a while ago, it’s a very political film. And it made me uncomfortable with many scenes because they’re just so upsetting, morally. But anyway, I’m here to discuss the craft of the film, so, here it is.
Throughout the film, it maintains a deft direction. It’s not much of appropriate to say that it’s extraordinary because it never was. Maybe because of the editing (I’ll talk about it later). The tension is very well-built that sometimes, it’s unbearable. I just want to skip a scene, but the direction is really good. It knows the genre it wants to tackle, and Parker does it well.
The screenplay was also very good. It knows how to build the atmosphere of the place and the situation by the words the character. The best use of the screenplay is with the character of Mrs. Pell. The character simplifies her the spirit of being a housewife. But every word she says is so real to a housewife with conflicts. She loves her husband, but she knows he’s not doing that good. She wants to help him. But she’s helpless. She cannot do anything but to wait for him to come home. No matter how hopeless the situation is.
Of course, it’s 75% brilliance from the actress, but the screenplay helps her in making a believable person. I wish the characters (all of them) weren’t really reduced. Yes, Hackman and Dafoe were given chances by the screenplay to give their character the humanity for them to be real, but I just hoped that it gave more opportunity to do their craft. Maybe, it’s quite the editing’s fault. Anyway, an adequate screenplay.
The technical part of the movie is commendable, except for the editing which is rather carelessly done.
It got its main source of acclaim from its cinematography. Maybe it deserved it. There are really a lot of cinematographic gems scattered throughout the whole film. Just in case of any need of justification, the opening scene was haunting to look at. What I see is a church or church-like structure and it’s burning. And it was shot like it was a mourning. It’s marked there that what we see is not just a burning church but the oppression of the souls in it. It’s gracefully done.
Also, there is the motel scene of Anderson and Ward talking. There is also this particular shot that invokes a threat. In literal terms, it was just them talking and sitting, but we see a lot of the ceiling. That’s a very threatening shot because it evokes danger for them. True, danger came to them, but that shot is a perfect foreshadowing of that.
For the last mention is the scene where a member of the KKK was brought to the hospital. While he is lying in the bed, the doctors and co-members are running him to the emergency area. That is one great shot. Sure, it’s easy to be done, especially it had been already done by other movies. But the way the elements come together – the narrow corridor, the people running, and the way it was shot was just….. fantastic.
On the contrary, the editing gives us faults that are as many as the interesting shots it has. There are a lot of potentially powerful scenes. The hanging of the black father, the riot at the church, Mr. Pell hitting his wife, the several burning of houses and churches used by the blacks – those are just some of the hard-hitting scenes the film has. And it could have urged me to love the movie more if not because of the abrupt editing. It’s like it’s just getting started and they suddenly cut it.
To give you the feeling, here is my explanation of the feeling: it’s just like watching your favorite movie. You have the beautiful setting, the conflict, and when it reaches he climax, then electricity suddenly is cut. Every time this happens in this movie, it makes me wanna say “ugh!’ because, duh? The film is already strong, and then you won’t serve it all? Or maybe, it was really a human error, they cut the rest of the scene by mistake.
I’m just making these reasons to explain to you that this could have been much better, but no matter how powerful your performances and screenplay and direction is, if the editing is a big WTF, then you won’t really have a great outcome.
The music is also worth listening to. The gospel song are very appropriate, since they play during the abuse scenes. It’s like we’re getting into the thinking of the black people and their strong faith in God. This thing is very evident in the night attack after the prayer meeting of the blacks. And when the trouble ensues, the black child just prays.It’s a true testament on how they feel in that condition. And it just hurts to watch, with the very effective songs.
Also, there is this instrumental music that keeps on repeating throughout the film whenever there is tension going on. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s very effective.
The production is very atmospheric. The costumes, production design, and other stuffs were really in the place and it’s very helpful in making the whole thing believable.
And the acting is top-notch.
Gene Hackman is very good as Anderson. He’s tough, but he’s just not tough. He is only given very few moments to make his character more humane, but he makes use the most of it to construct a dimension of the character. Here, he creates a character that has internal conflicts, but can’t fight it and in addition, he needs to face the evil, leaving him very little time to be with himself.
Willem Dafoe is also very good as Ward. His approach to the crime is direct: he wants to get them all. But he doesn’t understand the proceedings and the conditions that same as Anderson. Sure, he has the skills of a clever FBI agent, but he doesn’t have the understanding that Anderson has. It’s like his character is always in a hurry. He wants his job done in no time, and you can feel that in his body language. And Dafoe is very effective in that. His character is relaxed but on-the-edge. Hackman is just cool, but Dafoe has this sort of thing that he is only hiding the feeling of peril that he contains in himself.
McDormand is very good as Mrs. Pell. It’s quite good that her first name wasn’t even known because she turns into a symbol of the 60’s housewife stuck with internal and external conflicts. But from that accomplishment, we can already dig a flaw – she’s just a symbol. A mere symbol. What does she do in the film? Fix some hair in the beauty parlor, wash some dishes, talk about her terrible photo, appreciate a cute flower, be beaten by her husband, wait for an unsure absolution after the event. But that’s it.
Her Mrs. Pell is a well-decided epitome of conflicts and loss of human stability, but this is really more of a show-off of some skills than making some fully rounded character. And don’t mention that her time is too short – look at Joan Cusack in Working Girl (wait for its profile, next to Burning). In a way, it’s a screenplay that’s continually benefiting and backstabbing her.
The others are also pretty good, but they’re not much of memorable.
And now, I can’t really decide what’s its best scene because of the stupid editing it gave us. But as of now, what stuck with me is the scene of the KKK terrorizing the blacks after the prayer meeting that they had. And the child prays. Powerful, but abrupt.
And the ending left me feeling “okay?” I mean, come on. Is that the best ending you can give me?
In the end, what we have here is a movie that aims for the general audience to be uncomfortable with the fictionalized truths it gave us and for the white American audience to be disturbed by their conscience. It’s very political, but indeed powerful and upsetting and effective and affecting.
For this, the movie gets:
What are your thoughts, dear reader?