Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Guillermo Arriaga

Cast: Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence, José María Yazpik, Joaquim de Almeida, Tessa Ia, Diego J. Torres, J.D. Pardo, John Corbett, Brett Cullen, Danny Pino

MPAA Rating: R (for sexuality, nudity and language)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 9/18/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik

As the feature directorial debut of writer Guillermo Arriaga, famous for his work writing for director Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Burning Plain is very promising. His writing style remains the same here—broad characters put into tough situations with broader themes resonating throughout—and as a director, he has a sure hand keeping the focus on what really matters.

It's also, like his other works, pure melodrama, and I mean that in a complimentary way.

Melodrama concentrates on what characters do as opposed to who they are. Hence, it is all about sensationalism—the extremes of humanity. When they work, they draw us in to these extremes upon the merits of those big emotions and actions and/or what those things have to say in terms of the bigger picture.

The Burning Plain is a big picture melodrama. Arriaga uses his characteristic weaving timeline here, which somewhat draws us out of the characters' dilemmas on an emotional level, but in his generation-spanning, tangled narrative, he puts the focus squarely on what these actions mean to the broad view.

This is a story of past mistakes affecting the present. It's about how actions bring consequences that bring psychological turmoil, which in turn brings different actions that bring more consequences. In all of it is atonement for ones' own and others' transgressions.

The players: Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is the owner of a restaurant, who cuts herself and has a string of no-attachment, hollow sexual encounters with men, including one of her chefs (John Corbett), who wants more.

Gina (Kim Basinger) is a married woman with several children, whose husband (Brett Cullen) is away often driving a truck. She is having an affair with Nick (Joaquim de Almeida), who is also married with two sons, including Santiago (J.D. Pardo), whose favorite hobby is killing birds with a slingshot for food.

Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) is Gina's daughter. She overhears her mother on the phone with Nick, catches her in a few lies, and follows her to the trailer in the desert where she and Nick continue their affair. Mariana eventually meets and begins dating Santiago.

Carlos (José María Yazpik) is a crop duster in Mexico, whose brother (Danny Pino) is involved in a plane crash. After talking with his brother in the hospital, Carlos brings his brother's daughter (Tessa Ia) to the States and begins following Sylvia.

There are connections to all the characters, and if one stops to ponder their backstories for a moment, it should become pretty clear. However, it's best to let the Arriaga's steady revelations of those ties unravel at their natural pace.

The film opens with Nick's trailer on fire, and we learn soon after that Gina and Nick have died in the fire. It's the inciting incident of the story right off the bat. How the fire happened and how those deaths bring characters into each other's lives are of most importance to them and what Arriaga is getting at here.

In a traditional linear narrative, we would be concerned with the momentum of the melodrama, but with Arriaga's approach, we are instead watching the end results, occasionally going backwards to see how characters are brought to the fire and how they have changed as a direct result.

Arriaga's screenplays with González are very much the same in structure, but whereas González could occasionally become bogged down in forcing the thematic points home, Arriaga is patient. The thematic material is there by design, and he's smart enough to just let the events unfold in the order that makes the most sense to it.

The film is emotionally cold, but consider the characters. Two are in an extramarital affair where it's implied or obvious that something is not right in the marriages. A woman has the need to inflict bodily harm upon herself to overshadow the pain inside her. When she runs off on a lunch break to have sex with a random customer in a hotel room, she looks empty.

These are emotionally frozen people. They all have their reasons for their ennui, and that's what Arriaga wants to uncover. That he does so in a way reflective of his characters is only suitable then.

Through all of the despair of the film is ultimately the possibility and recognition of redemption. That glimmer of hope is Arriaga's affinity for the humanistic, and it propels The Burning Plain.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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