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 beat 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.
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. 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.
That ne'er-do-well is played by a ridiculously bewigged James Franco. Until this point, the film works as an outsider's study of the American grain, with promising hints of a criminal conspiracy plot. But Olds' hand proves less steady from there, the balance uncertain between the eccentric comedy, noir-dread and existential sea-gazing.