Rating: R, 99 minutes
Director: Giuseppe Capotondi
Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, and Mick Jagger
Around the time Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs started the Beat Generation, crime fiction was changing thanks to the introduction of mass-market paperbacks. You still had mysteries and detective stories, but writers like Jim Thompson (THE KILLER INSIDE ME) were crafting narratives centered on criminals, not gumshoes and avenging angels. Hard-boiled stories entered extreme territory, becoming cruel psychological dramas with not-so-happy endings.
Charles Willeford arrived late to the crime writing scene; his life was more extraordinary than any potboiler crafted behind a typewriter. He was admired by Elmore Leonard (GET SHORTY), influenced Daniel Woodrell (WINTER’S BONE) and his work inspired Quentin Tarantino while he was writing PULP FICTION.
THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY is considered to be his best noir. For the novel he drew from his work as a painter, combining the art world with a criminal element.
When we are introduced to erudite art critic James Figueras (Claes Bang), he’s rehearsing a lecture about a significant painter whose work has been mostly disregarded. Cross-cutting between practicing his speech and seeing those in attendance listen to him talk about a particular canvas, the lecture is succinct and compelling. What begins as a man painting portraits of German soldiers in a concentration camp becomes a sobering tale of a sister painting this picture in his memory. When asked if anyone would like a print of the painting, everyone’s hand is raised. Then James reveals the true origins of the canvas. Asking again if anyone would want a print, the crowd remains quiet except for Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki) sitting in back, her arm extended.
Living in Italy and telling tall tales to tourists may be amusing for James, but it is far from the life the art critic imagined. Berenice’s arrival leads to a quick tryst in the bedroom, and soon thereafter James and Berenice travel to a villa belonging to Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger), an art collector with a proposition. Cassidy tells him about Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), a painter living at the far end of his estate in a small cabin. It’s the news James needs to stop with spinning stories and to finally live successfully.
Remaining cryptic about the story just know THE BURNT ORANGE HERSEY is a thriller driven by intricacy and motivations with only a few characters. James’s ambition, Cassidy’s suggestion, Debney’s observation, and Berenice’s suppression – each one offers something different.
Mick Jagger is a performer, not an actor, and as the aristocratic Cassidy he uses that artificial charisma in convincing fashion. Donald Sutherland is brilliant as an enigmatic recluse that can flirt with Berenice poolside while engaging James psychologically. Clares Bang uses his sharp intellect to mask his own failures. And Elizabeth Debicki is just a simple Minnesotan trying to escape her own indiscretions.
Scott B. Smith (A SIMPLE PLAN) takes Willeford’s slim novel, exchanges South Florida for Lake Como, Italy, in delivering a screenplay where the words penetrate swift and deep. The further away James gets from his lens as a critic the murkier the proposition becomes.
The final outcome is a slippery-when-wet noir that still manages to surprise even when the paint dries.
Because it missed having a long theatrical bow, due to theaters being closed because of COVID-19, THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY played for only a few weeks before making its arrival to home video. Like many Sony Pictures Classics titles, the home release is slim when it comes to supplemental material.
Popping the disc in you’ll be inundated with trailers for other SPC titles: The Traitor, Greed, The Last Vermeer, Charm City Kings, The Climb, and Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory.
But for extras specific to the film there’s an audio commentary with director Giuseppe Capotondi; Behind The Burnt Orange Heresy (10:48): A simple, EPK featurette that has the actors talking about their characters, their actions, and Charles Willeford’s source material, and the film’s trailer.