Burning Kentucky, which I just finished watching on Prime, is a film that has its own unique vibe. You’re either going to connect with this frequently surreal film or you’re not. If you do connect with it, you’re going to be aware that, while the film has its narrative flaws, it also has moments of visual brilliance. If you don’t connect with it, you’ll probably dismiss it as just being another pretentious revenge thriller. Burning Kentucky currently has a rating of 4.1 over that imdb, not because it’s a bad film but because it’s just not a film for everyone. It’s not a crowd pleaser but it we’ve learned anything recently it’s that crowds suck.
Burning Kentucky takes place in the hills of Harlan County, Kentucky. We find ourselves observing two families. One family lives in a shack and brews moonshine. They eat whatever animals they catch in the wilderness and about the only thing that’s vaguely modern about them is the camera that their daughter, Aria (played, in her film debut, by Emilie Dhir), carries with her. (And even that camera appears to be from the mid-20th century.) Aria also narrates the film, musing about life and death. In the country, she explains, people understand that death is a part of life. Regardless of any sentimental feelings, everything dies.
The other family is headed by an man named Jaxson (John Pyper-Ferguson). Jaxson is the country sheriff, so he’s a man of some importance. However, it’s also obvious that he’s a man who has long been on a downward spiral. He drinks too much and he spends most of his time cursing God and complaining about the local preacher, Abe (Andy Umberger). Jaxson has two sons. Wyatt (Nick McCallum) appears to be relatively stable. Rule (Nathan Sutton), on the other hand, is a junkie who lives in a shack that he shares with Jolene (Augie Duke). Jolene wants to be a singer. She wants to get off drugs. Rule, on the other hand, appears to be content to just slowly kill himself.
Whenever Wyatt can get away from his drunk father and his wasted brother, he spends his time with Aria. They’ve been in love for several years, ever since the night that Aria discovered Wyatt trapped in one of the traps that her family had set around their land. When we first see Aria and Wyatt together, they talk about how they met on the same night that they each lost their mother.
It takes a while to figure out just what exactly is going on in Burning Kentucky. The deliberately paced first half of the film freely hops from the past to the present and then back again. The camera glides over the misty mountains of Kentucky, stopping to linger on deserted houses and crumbling buildings. Everything seems to be suspended in a state of permanent decay. The wilderness appears to be both beautiful and threatening at the same time and the imagery, when combined with Aria’s narration, is often surreal. The first half of the film plays out as if we’re watching a filmed dream.
Unfortunately, the second half of the film is a bit more conventional. Once we finally discover who everyone is relative to everyone else and after we learn what happened in the past, the film settles down to become a standard revenge thriller, albeit one that’s very much concerned with the concepts of guilt, redemption, and human nature. Still, the Kentucky hills remains atmospheric and dream-like and the well-selected performers — particularly Augie Duke and John Pyper-Ferguson — continue to bring their haunted characters to life.
As I said, this isn’t necessarily a film for everyone. The film’s ending will leave a lot of people feeling perplexed but that’s okay. A story like this doesn’t need a neat ending. In fact, Burning Kentucky is a film that demands to end on a hint of messiness and ambiguity. I liked Burning Kentucky. You might like it too.