Ian Olds' loose local-color thriller Burn Country works from the thesis that rural America is as complex and dangerous to justice-minded visitors as the most contested regions of Afghanistan. As Afghan national Osman (Dominic Rains) gets to know his new town, taking over the police blotter at the local newspaper, the incidental violence of a backwoods Northern California meth cartel gets intercut with desert airstrikes and insurgent attacks, which maybe is meant to tell us something about how people are all the same everywhere, poor and desperate, incapable of seeing other ways of resolving conflict.
But the movie — at first scrappy and strange but an increasingly tough sit as it goes — never fixes its gaze on any singularly compelling idea. It plays at times like a strong cable miniseries cut down to feature length. To establish himself in America, Osman is staying in the home of the mother of a journalist he guided through the tricky local politics of his homeland. That mother, played with a weary mellow toughness by an excellent Melissa Leo, is her town's sheriff, and through her Osman becomes embroiled in California strangeness: First, he is enchanted by a local theater troupe's hilariously inscrutable production, in Polish, of a play about Ann Coulter. Then, on a domestic disturbance call during a ride-along with Leo's Gloria, he angers up the blood of a creepy flanneled ne'er-do-well in a scene of queasy menace.
“Who are you?” the ne'er-do-well slurs, his face barely visible in the dark.
Osman, not yet versed in the antipathies of Americans, says the worse thing he could: “A reporter.”
That ne'er-do-well, I'm sorry to say, is played by a ridiculously bewigged James Franco. I only realized this 40 minutes in, when he appears again, in daylight, suddenly friendly to Osman. Until this point, the film works as an outsider's study of the American grain, with promising hints of a criminal conspiracy plot and some frightening eruptions of pigheadedness about an Afghan wandering such white country — a local kid lights the sheriff's mailbox on fire, and a convenience-store clerk refuses to serve Osman. But then Franco turns up, not playing a troubled small-town drunk but playing James Franco as a troubled small-town drunk, his every utterance and gesture coated in look-at-me self-consciousness.
The ensuing shrug of a mystery centers on Franco's character. Olds' hand proves less steady after that promising start, the balance uncertain between the eccentric comedy, noir-dread and existential sea-gazing. There's a murder, some confrontations and revelations and much hanging out with Americans of varying levels of friendliness. It's often unclear just what Osman is up to.
Olds stages some suspenseful encounters, and he's adept with scenes of driving and bicycling around hilly, forested roads. For stretches the story turns intentionally aimless, but its people aren't sharply etched enough to compel on their own. Rains is a thoughtful charmer, and his reactions to the Californians often inventive and funny, but the character spends too much time bobbing along in still waters; Leo gets fewer scenes, but is continually fresh and exciting. I'd watch a TV show about these two.