The Burning Plain **
Directed By: Guillermo Arriaga.
Written By: Guillermo Arriaga.
Starring: Charlize Theron (Sylvia), Kim Basinger (Gina), Jennifer Lawrence (Mariana), José María Yazpik (Carlos), Joaquim de Almeida (Nick), Tessa Ia (Maria), Diego J. Torres (Cristobal), J.D. Pardo (Young Santiago), Danny Pino (Santiago), John Corbett (John).
The films written by Guillermo Arriaga have become increasingly predictable, and really rather silly, in their view of humanity stretching across national boundaries. What seemed original, and even daring, in Amores Perros and 21 Grams, has since become increasingly fractured and predictable in films like Babel and The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada – even if those films still were quite good. But with his debut directing effort, The Burning Plain, Arriaga has proven that he has taken his concepts as far as they can go, and it’s time to move on. Despite the fractured timeline of the narrative in this film, there is not a moment where you cannot see what is coming before it gets there. Arriaga’s sad sack blond white women, and the Mexicans that they simultaneously hurt and love in this film, is just more of the same from a writer who has run out of ideas.
In rainy Oregon, a beautiful woman named Sylvia (Charlize Theron), who is the manager of an upscale restaurant, drowns in pain in booze, meaningless affairs and by cutting herself with a jagged rock, while a Mexican man follows her around. In sun burnt New Mexico, a bored housewife Gina (Kim Basinger) has an affair with a Mexican man Nick (Joaquin de Almeida) that led to their death when the trailer they met for their rendezvous blows up. Now their kids Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Santiago (J.D. Pardo) meet to discuss their parents affair, as we flashback to what actually happened. In even more sun burnt Mexico, a daughter Maria (Tessa Ia) watches as her father’s crop dusting plane crashes, and leaves her without parents, as her mother ran off years ago. If you haven’t figured out the secrets of the movie by the end of this paragraph (which contains no more information than the trailer does), you probably do not watch many movies.
Arriaga tries to cover the predictability of his story by telling it in bits and pieces, not giving you the whole picture until well into the running time of the movie. This works sometimes – as it did brilliantly in 21 Grams, and to a lesser extent in Babel, although it should be said that director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu bares a great responsibility for that along with Arriaga – but here, with such a simple story, it simply serves to confuse and frustrate the audience.
A bigger problem maybe that the characters are all so dour and depressed throughout the entire movie. If this is a movie about the human experience, than shouldn’t there be some happiness somewhere in the film? And can’t any of the characters be more than one dimensional? I mean Charlize Theron is a talented actress, but when you give her nothing to do but walk around looking depressed, there isn’t much she can do with the role. Basinger is given even less to do, and as we slowly realize that she is just another of cinema’s “sexually repressed” middle aged women with a decent, but boring husband, I got bored and tuned out. Jennifer Lawrence is probably the best in the movie, because at least her character has some shifts and changes to her – and she’s the only character who feels truly alive. I get a sense that talented newcomer Ia could have done the same thing with Maria, if she had been given more of a chance.
It should be said that the movie is well made. Arriaga may not have the visual flair of Gonzalez Inarritu, but he has made a professional looking film. And the actors, for all the shortcomings of the screenplay, do what they can to salvage the movie. I just found I wasn’t too interested in these characters or their lives. The jumbled plot didn’t help much either. The Burning Plain is a movie that simply plays it too safe – and makes the mistake of believing itself to be profound and original, when really it is more of the same from a writer who is out of ideas.