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– by Daniel Tafoya

Contained, single location thrillers are hard to pull off. More of them end up lifeless duds, like ATM, than turn out to be tension-filled thrill rides, like Phone Booth. Director Mike Gan’s new gas station set movie Burn falls somewhere in between. While not gripping the viewer with white-knuckled suspense, the film does have quite a few surprising twists and turns and an exemplary lead performance by actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Melinda, a lonely, odd late-night gas station attendant.

Melinda works with Sheila (Suki Waterhouse), a pretty and cocky cashier who talks too much, spewing a lot of venom in the process. One fateful night, a customer, played by Josh Hutcherson, attempts to rob the store, as he owes money to some bad biker hombres. This character, Billy, is surprised to find Melinda all too willing to help, as she finds this incident thrilling and wants to use it as a way out of her humdrum workaday life. Billy resists though, and finds that it is not a good idea to cross Melinda, for she is far more complex and dangerous than she seems. From here, there are some bullets that fly and a very bizarre sexual situation, all leading up to an eventual face-off between our two leads that might not even leave the gas station standing when all is said and done.

The real revelation in Burn is Cobham-Hervey as Melinda. From the second she hits the screen, you know something is off about her and she only acts more out there as the film progresses. The type of character that pours hot coffee on her hand just to feel something is one you definitely don’t want to be on the bad side of, but ultimately that’s where Billy ends up. Having echoes of Robin McLeavy’s Princess character from the Aussie horror film The Loved Ones and Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes from Misery, Melinda ends up in good company when it comes to female movie villains. She either gets what she wants or those who stand between her and her objective will suffer.

First-time feature filmmaker Mike Gan does himself well in the director’s chair. Keeping things visually interesting in a film with all of two main sets, the store’s shopping area and break room is a major challenge in and of itself, but Gan is up to the task. He also elicits quality performances from all of the actors in his small cast, as the movie comes across as more reminiscent of a well-acted play than a lively cinematic work. As previously mentioned, Cobham-Hervey stands out, but fine turns are also displayed by Hutcherson, Waterhouse & Harry Shum Jr., the latter as a kindly police officer patrolling the local beat. 

Burn is an adeptly directed contained thriller, made more notable by its fine cast. A fun time is definitely there to be had by those who appreciate off the wall villainous characters. This movie’s Melinda seems like a nice, shy, awkward gal but there’s so much more below the surface, and what’s there is not just surprising but evil and rotten to the core.

Recommended if you liked: Phone Booth, Buried, The Loved Ones

FINAL GRADE: B-

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