(2008)2.5Kimber MyersLike his screenwriting work in Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros, Guillermo Arriaga's directorial debut is a complex, emotional drama that doesn't limit itself to a single narrative. Instead, The Burning Plain skips back and forth through four different times and stories -- that is, if anything this heavy can be said to skip. Like the lives of its characters, this film is emotionally devastating as the audience witnesses the cruelty people can do to others, and themselves.
In one of the four interweaving threads, Oscar winner Charlize Theron stars as Sylvia, a restaurant manager who has no trouble stripping for a succession of lovers, but she cannot be emotionally naked with anyone around her. A mysterious man from Mexico follows her through Portland, OR, and finally forces her to revisit a history she left behind. Another story involves Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Santiago (J.D. Pardo), two teenagers in Las Cruces, NM, who find solace in each other after their parents' destructive affair and deaths. A third arc follows Gina (Oscar-winning actress Kim Basinger) as she is tempted to leave behind her family for a romance with a Mexican-American man (Joaquim de Almeida). Set in Mexico, the fourth plot follows a young girl (Tessa Ia), her father, and her father's best friend after a single moment threatens to upend their existence.
As in Arriaga's other work, violence figures prominently, but emotional attacks have the true power to wound. The Burning Plain might attempt to be about resolution, redemption, and forgiveness at its conclusion, but the pervasive feelings here -- including guilt, regret, and anger -- aren't likely to leave the audience with any hope for humanity. The Burning Plain drags its feet through its 111-minute run time, making it a trip that's both tortuous and torturous for its audience.
Despite its faults, The Burning Plain is technically strong. Director of photography Robert Elswit, who perfected gorgeous landscape shots on films such as There Will Be Blood and
Syriana, brings his talent to the southern-set stories, while John Toll nicely captures the murky gray of Portland. Editor Craig Wood transitions expertly between the different stories,
allowing the shots themselves to serve as clues to the mystery that begins with the film's opening shot of a trailer on fire in the New Mexico desert.
For his freshman turn as director, Arriaga elicits excellent performances from his cast, particularly his lead actresses. His screenplays have often been more male-centric, but the women in The Burning Plain -- and the actresses who play them -- carry the film. Basinger proves that her Oscar for L.A. Confidential wasn't a fluke with her portrayal of the emotionally and physically scarred Gina, and Theron's eyes -- at once lifeless and haunted -- communicate more than most performers' entire bodies. The cast and crew all seem talented, but it's a shame that they have such dreary material to trudge through.
Charlize Theron top-lines the romantic ensemble The Burning Plain, written and directed by Babel screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. 2929 Production's film tells the tale of a web of interconnecting love stories, with Theron playing Sylvia, a woman with a troubled past who tries to reconcile with her parents.