Over the course of Burn It All, writer-director Brady Hall’s wildly misjudged and criminally terrible attempt at turning the action-revenge genre female, anti-heroine Alex (of course she has a man’s name) is repeatedly asked “Why are you so angry?” I counted seven times, but there may have been more. The thing is, I couldn’t tell you why she’s angry. It’s not that Alex doesn’t answer the question, or that I wasn’t paying attention to what that answer was – though the movie does make it difficult – but the characterization is so thin her justification amounts to little more than “men.” I’m an angry woman. I’m angry about many different things. Off the top of my head; wage inequality (always), the systemic rape and torture at a Chinese “re-education” camp I was reading about yesterday and, oh yeah, this goddamn movie.
Opening with a crass sequence involving Alex (Elizabeth Cotter, doing the best she can despite everything working against her) being put on hold for an hour while trying to contact a suicide prevention hotline, Burn It All initially presents itself as the kind of hard-scrabble indie movie about a down-on-their-luck lower class type that’s typically easy to get behind, such as Blue Ruin or last year’s The Swerve. The cinematography, also by Hall, is crisp and clear-eyed. Unfortunately, it quickly transpires that a good camera was purchased and that was about it – certain scenes aren’t even lit correctly, particularly those set at nighttime. Alex is back in her hometown for her mother’s funeral even though she refused to be with the woman on her deathbed. Go figure.
Trouble is the body has been stolen by local criminals who run an organ-smuggling ring out of a warehouse on the outskirts of town. The local police, one of whom is Alex’s scumbag ex-boyfriend who beat and raped both Alex and her younger sister (really), are in on it. After attempting to get the body back herself, Alex is captured but she soon escapes and kicks some serious butt because this is one of those movies. Thus begins a violent spiral of escalating mayhem as Alex fights to get her mother back so she can bury her properly. Or something. To be frank, Alex’s goal and her motivation for that goal are never made explicitly clear. The body is eventually buried on the side of the road, which is emblematic of just how badly this film is written and executed.
Burn It All plays like a fake feminist movie-within-a-movie from a Ben Shapiro production, the kind conservatives use to try to make fun of people they don’t completely understand. The phrase “terrified libtard” is deployed. Alex refers to one guy’s gun as a “totem of insecurity” and tells another “I’m not your murder mommy.” Is this seriously how men think women speak? Alex’s sister inexplicably works in somewhere I can only describe as a bikini coffee shop. The business is never explained but it does allow for some poor actress to yell about how she’s tired of being called a “whore.” Men can certainly tell these stories – take Ready Or Not or Crawl as two recent examples of “woman fights back ‘cause she’s not as weak as she looks” done right – but this man definitely cannot.
Every male character is a prick in Burn It All. There are dudes disrespecting women quite literally everywhere. When Alex asks a woman who’s clearly being abused whether she’s okay, the response is that it’s “none of her business,” hinting the problem is town-wide (nothing comes of this, naturally). Later, Alex complains of being assaulted both “verbally and physically,” which suggests a queasy link between the two I haven’t got the energy to explore right now. Hall consistently mistakes verbosity for profundity, with Alex delivering lengthy, lofty speeches at every opportunity, completely unprompted. The climax, or rather anticlimax, involves her delivering one such speech to a man who clearly could just shoot her to shut her up but doesn’t because…female empowerment?
It’s worth noting that particular sequence takes place in a warehouse, a bizarre choice that chimes perfectly with Burn It All’s aesthetic, or lack thereof. In the organ-smugglers’ hideout, several plastic sheets have been hung up to catch blood or whatever and, let me tell you, the filmmakers certainly get their money’s worth out of them. Inexplicably, one of only two other female characters supposedly cleans this place. But how? It’s just one big room with sheets hanging up everywhere. What even is this facility? You could reasonably suggest the setting is purely for the benefit of the film’s many action sequences, but the fights are so badly choreographed and difficult to follow even a massive room with nothing in it doesn’t benefit them. The gunshots are wholly unconvincing too, while the violence isn’t particularly inspired either – why do the big spike-in-face setup and not show the impact properly?
The shady cabal who are after Alex is under-developed, while the chess analogy that’s consistently trotted out to make them appear more imposing is overdone and quite dumb, too. There’s no sense of intrigue, no suspense. Everything is talked to death. Alex gets rid of her abuser so early on it barely even registers and there’s no catharsis from either that or her eventual reunion with her sister (bless Emily Gateley but she needs to take it down several notches, as a decent director would have instructed her to do – relax your mouth, woman!). Burn It All is incompetent in every conceivable way but the manner in which it fails its female characters – all three of them! – and in particular Alex is inexcusable. She doesn’t even seem that messed up, despite everybody telling her she looks terrible.
The most obvious comparison I can make here is with the esteemed John Wick series. The titular character had a very real motivation: the bad guys killed his dog. Also, he was sad about his dead wife. Also, they took his car. Alex, who didn’t care enough about her mother to even answer the phone when the hospital called to say she was about to kick the bucket, is somehow desperate to get her body back and bury it properly. But then she doesn’t even do that. The bad guys are mad at her for wrecking their business even though Alex didn’t really pay it any mind. She doesn’t trust the police either, so who is Alex going to tell? Even John Wick sustained some injuries along the way and had to get patched up but, again, despite everyone telling her she looks rough, Alex never gets a little bit messy.
At first, it’s not clear whether the script is clunky or the performances are, or both. Having had some time to think about it, I reckon it’s probably both. But the actors are likely trying their best to deliver lines that no human being would ever say, so I’m hesitant to put the blame squarely at their feet. Hall is clearly the mastermind behind this fiasco, which is triumphantly being promoted as a movie that “crushes the patriarchy.” To do that, Hall would first have to understand what the patriarchy actually is and how it consistently works to keep women down. As for the three female producers he has somehow managed to wrangle, I can only imagine they’re family or friends of his. I hope.
If Burn It All wasn’t coming out in the wake of 12 Hour Shift, a rousing, explosive, highly entertaining and super feminist tale of an anti-heroine mixed up in a shady cabal of organ harvesters that, crucially, was written and directed by a woman, maybe it wouldn’t sting so bad. There’s a major reckoning happening in the industry at the moment and men can either listen and try to do better or they can pretend to get it and make awful movies like this, which seek to give women a voice but really just keep asking them over and over again “why are you so angry?” without paying any attention to the response.
WICKED RATING: 2/10
Director(s): Brady Hall
Writer(s): Brady Hall
Stars: Elizabeth Cotter, Emily Gateley, Ryan Postell, Elena Flory-Barnes, Greg Michaels
Release date: February 19, 2021
Studio/Production Company: IOB Films
Run Time: 102 minutes