The Burning Plain Reviews
As far as the story is concerned, I think of Kurt Vonnegut's "rules" for writing. He effectively said, "Don't hide anything from the audience. Fuck suspense." He also said, "Flannery O'Connor violates all of these rules and still writes effective fiction." Hi ho. Writer/director Guillermo Arriaga would have done well to remember Vonnegut's "rules" because for much of the movie, we feel like the episodic scenes we're presented with are too disconnected in theme and substance to amount to anything interesting. It turns out that the stories are connected, but by the time we find this out, we've stopped caring.
Overall, catch a rising star in Lawrence but to hell with the rest of the film.
The strength of the film is found in its female cast: from Charlize Theron (who also executive-produced) and Kim Basinger to newcomers Tessa Ia and Jennifer Lawrence, the latter giving the best performance in the film as "Mariana". Lawrence is already gathering considerable Oscar buzz for her role in another drama, Winter's Bone. Also of note is the cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will be Blood), which is particularly stunning when showing the chilly Portland shore.
Guillermo Arriaga's one and only big mistake is his inability to really capture the essence of Mexico and its people which, frankly, is a mistake no Mexican filmmaker should make. Most of the Mexican (or Mexican-American) characters that appear in the film feel fake and artificial, even stereotypical, which isn't something unheard of in the world of cinema, but one would definitely expect more authenticity from a director that's portraying his own culture.
The funny thing about The Burning Plain is how it surprises you. You expect the main focus to be Basinger's relationship or Theron's loss of life, but at the central core of the film isn't a couple playing in the desert, put how their children help each other cope and eventually create what was destroyed in that trailer in the desert. That's the most interesting story. Through all the odds and animosity they hold it together.
Even though it's not a perfect film, it does hold ones interest with a story that spans time and how it will catch up with you . It is more tragedy than romance, so don't go into this expecting Nicholas Sparks garbage. This is actually well written and acted with a sense for detail. A nice film.
Still, the story may confuse some because it is multi-tiered and is told from different perspectives at varying times in the characters lives. But if you find yourself engrossed with the first story, everything else will fall into place and you'll find that you've been following the story without any problems.
The story itself is a richly textured one. It concerns a woman named Sylvia (Theron) who is on the verge of a mid-life crisis because of a traumatic childhood event concerning her family--more specifically, her mother (Basinger.) When Sylvia is confronted with the product of her mistake in the form of a daughter, she must come to terms with her past and the errors of her ways.
Essentially, the movie explores the delicate line on which people walk throughout their whole lives in order to avoid being hurt. There comes a point in everybody's life when one must choose to keep running from the things that cause us pain or confront them head-on and suffer the consequences and/or reap the benefits.
The film slowly unravels itself unto its audience, ultimately leaving the viewer greatly satisfied at the way the character have chosen to play out their roles in the story. The acting by Theron and Basinger is stellar as the sullen pair of women that anchor what could have been a chaotic film. Their performances are the root of the film's extrapolating branches and all the fruits that those branches bear are a direct result from the seeds that they sow with every nuance and subtle revelation in their performances.
Hopefully, the efforts of Theron, Basigner and director Guillermo Arriaga won't go unnoticed come awards season. The Burning Plain is definitely one of the best of the year so far and, although somewhat understated and slightly depressing, it is a brilliant little gem that deserves to be discovered and admired by many.
A drama with a two-tiered storyline concerning a mother (Basinger) and daughter (Theron) who try to form a bond after the young woman's difficult childhood.
The writer Guillermo Arriaga, much famed for his trilogy of films with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, namely Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, steps behind the camera and debuts his own directing skills with 'The Burning Plain' a multi-layered affair that at its core tries to explore how we deal with guilt. If you didn't like the style of the aforementioned films then chances are you won't get on with this either. The story is told in interweaving flashbacks and over different time periods and does require some work on the part of the viewer. But with plot pieces trickled out like a bread crumb trail right up to the end, a great but subtle score and some breathtaking scenery it grips you as you slowly piece it all together. Added to that there are the two brilliant central performances from Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger, as the damaged mother and daughter and a supporting cast that in their various roles are also superb especially Jennifer Lawrence who rightly won an award at the Venice Film Festival. The cinematography is great and the colours are so warm you can almost feel the Mexican heat coming out of the screen. The direction while not quite as good as Inarritu proves that Arriaga was indeed paying attention and the overall feel is eerily similar. The only downside is that it does leave certain characters stories unfinished but that really is just a minor quibble in what is a very emotionally charged and challenging film.
In Portland, Or, Sylvia(Charlize Theron) runs a successful upscale restaurant with her friend Laura(Robin Tunney). Sylvia will not date customers but will date the help, namely John(John Corbett, in danger of being typecast as the nice guy who is interested only in unstable women), a chef, while putting on a show for the public in downtown Portland which is probably not that out of the ordinary there. It is ironic because she hides her feelings well, preferring to burn herself with cigarettes rather than any genuine emotions. And that's when Carlos(Jose Maria Yazpik) enters her life.
Contrary to what you may have heard, "The Burning Plain" is not told in non-sequential fashion. Instead, it uses its different settings to tell a compelling story about the need for forgiveness with the usual strong work from Charlize Theron. That's not to say the movie is without its share of flaws, however. Admittedly, it will not take a genius to figure how all the parts fit together well ahead of the movie's weak resolution. And it is not believable that only one person in a small town would know of an affair. Love may be able to conquer all but it is not more powerful than gossip. Plus, it is kind of reductive to show New Mexico as symbolizing emotional warmth while Portland's raininess is supposed to symbolize the dreariness of the characters' lives. On the other hand, the cinematography is excellent.
A strong debut, this tale of redemption, acceptance, forgiveness and at times the darkest corners of humanity, is a definite watch from someone who has a very clear and distinctive voice.