The Burning Plain

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reviewed by Marc Glassman

The Burning Plain
Guillermo Arriaga, director and script. Starring: Charlize Theron (Sylvia), Kim Basinger (Gina), Jennifer Lawrence (Mariana), Joaquim de Almeida (Nick), Jose Maria Yazpik (Carlos), John Corbett (John), Danny Pino (Santiago as an adult), J.D. Pardo (teenaged Santiago)

Poor Guillermo Arriaga. The Cannes winning and Oscar nominated scriptwriter of The Three Burials of Melquidades Estrada, Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros was due for a critical slagging after so many hits but, he must be thinking, why now, when I finally have been allowed to direct one of my own stories? While Roger Ebert, the New York Times’ A.O. Scott and others have chosen this time to take down Arriaga, it seems fitting that others should rise to the defense of this eminently gifted writer and novice filmmaker. Me, for instance.

The Burning Plain, Arriaga’s initial auteur effort stars Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron as Gina and Sylvia, two profoundly sad, lovely women. As always with Arriaga the narrative is skewed so it’s impossible to see a relationship between the two for most of the film but their tragic emotional states unites them from the moment they’re seen (in individual episodes) on the screen.

Arriaga has a deep if melodramatic understanding of women—think back to Naomi Watts in 21 Grams or Rinko Kikuchi in Babel—so it’s not surprising that Basinger and Theron are marvelous in his film. What is surprising is the absolutely persuasive acting turn of teenager Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Gina’s daughter Mariana wonderfully well. Those who claim that The Burning Plain lacks emotional resonance should look closely at Mariana and her transformation throughout the film.

Like Arriaga’s previous works, The Burning Plain plays with time and locale. The film moves from contemporary Oregon and Mexico to New Mexico in the 1990s. In the ‘90s section, we follow Gina (Basinger), a cancer survivor and mother of four, who is conducting a secret love affair with Nick, a Mexican-American who is passionately in love with her. Aware that her husband John would react violently to the revelation of her affair, Gina desperately tries to hide it. But it’s obvious to the viewer, if not Gina, that her sulky, confused daughter Mariana knows what’s going on and is extremely unhappy with her mother.

In the contemporary section, Sylvia (Theron) is in a deep emotional rut. Although she’s successfully managing an upscale restaurant in Portland, Sylvia is desperately unhappy, conducting meaningless affairs, while trying to sort out her life. The rainy terrain of Oregon and the setting of the restaurant on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean makes for a lovely contrast with the desert of New Mexico—a nice directorial touch.

What unites the stories of Gina and Sylvia? In previous Arriaga efforts, one could say “only emotion or philosophy.” Not so here where the connection may become apparent before the plot inevitably reveals itself. Still, it’s hard not to be moved when the connection between the two is finally expressed.
What burns in the film? People die in a terrifying fire in a mobile home. Many lives are affected by that one horrifying moment. But there’s more burning than just victims of a fire. Suppressed emotions and angry self-recriminations propel the story—until finally some wounded characters make the effort to change their fates and embrace life.

Would The Burning Plain work if it had been played in a linear line? Perhaps. But that’s no reason to claim that Arriaga is being overly pretentious. His mysteries are deeper than mere chronological devices.

In interviews, Arriaga has pointed out that when we tell personal stories to each other, we often digress and embellish our tales. It’s normal in life if not film.

The Burning Plain, which moves from one doomed affair to one that may finally be played out happily, is a deeply felt piece. Yes, it’s contrived but the story still carries a wallop. If you don’t decide to see his film in a cinema, I urge you to see it on DVD—if only to enjoy the great performances of Basinger and Theron and a revealing one by Lawrence.

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