The reckless, sexy, funny, moving and ultimately life-affirming story of Tom, a British chef in a Sydney restaurant, who seems to have decided there are no longer any rules he needs to obey. Whatever Tom is up to, his actions seem to be tolerated by those around him. As Tom descends into darkness, fragments of a different story begin to emerge. All the women in his world are trying in their own, very different ways to help put him back together.
It’s become a trope of film criticism to analyse a film’s merits relative to 'the sum of its parts’, but Jonathan Teplitzky’s Burning Man is that rare example of a fine film where the usual arithmetic need not apply. The fragments are the film.
An experiential kaleidoscope of sex, love, and the numbing nihilism that accompanies a traumatic event, Burning Man manages to bring energy, originality and depth to a storyline that is itself something of a trope: 'The Cancer Film’.
Writer/director Teplitzky and editor Martin O’Connor employ a jarring and disjointed storytelling technique to represent lead character Tom (Matthew Goode)’s upended senses in the discombobulating aftermath of bereavement. The seemingly random scenes and competing timelines toy with audience expectations of its lead character, which subsequent revelation and repetition seek to dispel.
Tom is a chef/restaurateur, running a busy a Mod Oz/seafood restaurant situated on the cliff tops of Sydney’s Coogee. His bloodshot eyes and precocious detachment from random sexual hook-ups play directly into stereotypes about night owls of the hospitality industry. Abrasive and elusive to his concerned friends’ and family’s inquiries, his self-interest extends to his young son, whom he relinquishes – albeit with some reluctance – to a relative’s more stable home environment. Having established his lead as a bit of an all-around dick, Teplitzky introduces a gear change by way of Tom’s recollections of his beloved wife (Bojana Novakovic), which are introduced with accumulated excerpts of scenes still to come. The effect alters – ever so incrementally – our perception of Tom, and gives a better idea of what’s turned him into a cranky, birthday cake-kicking single parent with a predilection for curly-wigged prostitutes.
Teplitzky has spoken openly of the fact that Burning Man is inspired by personal experience, and his honest account rejects the convention of linear storytelling and melancholic depictions of a happy family torn apart by the death of a wife/mother. Teplitzky replaces meaningful silences and emotive strings with frenetic energy and alternate scene takes, as he taps into the displacing effect of loss and its reverberations, especially how easily sex can become an outlet for a mass of unresolved 'feelings’.
Matthew Goode’s Tom gets to alienate the majority of the supporting characters, bed a similar percentage of same, fall in love with a headstrong woman who calls his bluff, and swear an awful lot (including towards a minor). His grief is raw and his anger palpable, and the lead role makes a logical companion piece to the actor’s past performance as a deceased partner recalled in flashback, in Tom Ford’s similarly excellent account of bereavement, A Single Man.