The Burning Plain
- Written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga
- Starring Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence, Joaquim de Almeida, Tessa Ia
- Classification: 14A
It's possible to admire the performances of stars Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger in The Burning Plain , even as you backpedal from the film, hoping the ponderous megasoap will just go away.
The movie is the directorial debut of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, former Mexico City street kid and author of 21 Grams , Amores Perros and Babel . Arriaga's calling cards are shuffled storylines and lost, wounded characters. Here, he adds a new wrinkle: His injured strays play themselves at different stages of their lives. But there is no before and after. No change in hair or car styles. Everyone, everything exists in the onrushing present.
Throw in enough symbolism to choke an English-lit major and you have a film challenge that too often feels like a chore.
The Burning Plain begins with fire demolishing a trailer in New Mexico grasslands. After that, we meet Theron's character in Oregon. She's naked in a bedroom window, smoking, waiting for an unwanted lover to disappear. It's morning. School kids pass by outside. Still, she makes no effort to cover herself.
Later, she takes another lover, a customer with an oil slick in his hair. Someone else she doesn't like.
"Why are you like this?" a boyfriend asks.
The Burning Plain doesn't tell us, not right away, but we have to believe it has something to do with the film's other storylines: Kim Basinger plays a dissatisfied married woman who meets her Mexican lover (Joaquim de Almeida) in a trailer in the aforementioned New Mexico grasslands. Her disapproving teenage daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) follows her around. The daughter, who likes to play with fire, also has a Mexican boyfriend.
And so the various plots of Arriaga's film turn on and into each other, like figures in an M.C. Escher painting.
As mentioned, The Burning Plain is loaded down with symbolism. Aside from the fire motif (love's consuming passion!), there are free-flying birds everywhere. At one point, the teenage lovers knock a bird from the sky, and then roast it in a fire before making love. That can't be good, you're thinking. Sure enough, the kid becomes a pilot. Later on, his plane begins to cough and smoke.…
The film is not without interesting moments or performances. Theron plays her role without hyperbole or vanity. And filmmaker Arriaga never indulges his lead - he doesn't provide anything like a big crying-into-a-phone scene to impress Oscar voters. Theron plays her part mad and is all the more interesting for being unlikable.
Basinger has the more conventional role. Her character, Gina, is a middle-aged woman with too many dangerous secrets. It's a part that Basinger interprets with tenderness and insight, allowing us to understand that Gina, the straying housewife, is not so much deeply in love as deeply afraid.
Guillermo Arriaga remains an interesting storyteller. If anything, his script is overfull of good ideas - storylines taken too far. But he may not have the editorial skills to be a good director.
To paraphrase the old joke about lawyers, sometimes a screenwriter who represents himself on film has a fool for a client.
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