|'Remains one of the most frank, uncompromising and culturally valuable depictions of an undeniably ugly period of human history'.|
Despite its clear and important sociopolitical backdrop, at its centre Mississippi Burning presents a relatively straightforward crime thriller narrative. Director Alan Parker may lose sight of this at a few points, oversimplifying plot developments which may have benefited, from a storytelling perspective, from further complexity. Watching the unfolding investigation into the disappearance of three young civil rights activists may arguably have been enhanced further if the opening sequence in which we see the men murdered wasn't there, allowing us to learn the truth at the same time as the protagonists. That said, the reasons behind the directorial decisions Parker makes are always justifiable. The skeleton here may be focused on criminal investigation, but the cinematic body that is built around it creates a stark and palpable representation of small-town Mississippi in 1964.
Parker's film is bolstered by a brace of reliably strong performances from leads Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman. Whilst the pairing of an inexperienced idealist and a cynical veteran in FBI Agents Alan Ward (Dafoe) and Rupert Anderson (Hackman) respectively falls back a little on a tried and tested formula, in the hands of two such talented actors this never becomes an issue. As the senior agent in the investigation, Alan is initially keen to exert his authority in any way he can and play things by the book, an approach that conflicts with former Mississippian Rupert's world-weary realism and "old-fashioned" tactics. The fluctuating relationship between the two is consistently engaging, with Dafoe and Hackman generating satisfying chemistry from their opening scene onwards.
In support, Frances McDormand delivers a superb understated performance as the wife of Deputy Sheriff Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif), sharing several pleasing scenes with Hackman in particular. Parker keeps the attraction between her and Rupert is subtle, only allowing it to manifest itself genuinely on one occasion - a smart move by the director that ensures his primary focus is never detracted from, whilst teasing wonderful low-key interaction from Hackman and McDormand. Those under scrutiny from the FBI are also presented through strong supporting turns from the likes of R. Lee Ermey, Stephen Tobolowsky and Michael Rooker.
Parker never loses sight of his key aim through Mississippi Burning however, putting on screen scene after scene that expertly depicts the persecution and violence suffered by the black population in Mississippi and other southern states at this time. From the simple opening shot of "white" and "colored" drinking fountains, the director tackles the subject of racism and segregation in a manner that neither melodramatically exploits nor pulls any punches. Whilst Parker regularly presents sequences that are necessarily harrowing, he continually demonstrates the steady hand of a director firmly in control. As a result, Mississippi Burning remains one of the most frank, uncompromising and culturally valuable depictions of an undeniably ugly period of human history.
Mississippi Burning is released on UK Blu-ray on Monday 14th September 2015.