Osman (Dominic Rains) is an Afghan journalist who has been granted asylum in the U.S. He lives in a perpetually foggy area of California with Gloria (Melissa Leo), a sheriff and the mother of a colleague who is still stationed in Afghanistan. Osman has settled for a beneath-his-skill-level job writing the local police blotter for a paltry $50 per week. He longs for something meatier. Much to the dismay of Gloria, he begins showing up on her various calls. One such instance is a domestic violence matter involving Lindsay (James Franco, initially unrecognizable).
Burn Country is something of a 'fish out of water' story, presenting Osman as an intuitive, intelligent, inquisitive writer. But he's also naive about American culture, particular the backwoods underbelly in which he's wrapped up. When a local townsperson is murdered, followed by Lindsay's disappearance, Burn seems primed to go down the crime/mystery route. But director Olds cannot sustain any true suspense. It's also difficult to understand why we should give a rip about any of these people. Despite earnestly engaging turns by Leo and Rains, the drama remains stubbornly flat throughout. Occasional cutaways to Afghanistan, where we see Sheriff Gloria's journalist son on assignment, feel as if they've been flown in from another movie.
Even fans of James Franco, certainly the most bankable name here, may be disappointed by his hamfisted performance. As mentioned above, when Lindsay first emerges from the shadows of a dark night to grill Osman with questions (and to issue a few threats) Franco is fully immersed in his inarticulate character. But the next time we see him, he's morphed into a self-proclaimed "tickle monster" (not kidding). From this point on, we couldn't forget we're watching James Franco if we tried. At times, his broad characterization isn't all that far off from his turn in the recent comedy Why Him?.