The Burning Plain
- Tom Dawson
- 5 March 2009
After a publicised falling-out with the filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, with whom he collaborated on Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, the Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga has now made his own directorial debut, the sombre melodrama The Burning Plain. Given Arriaga’s body of work, it’s no surprise that it adheres to Jean-Luc Godard’s maxim that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order: the jigsaw puzzle narrative cuts backwards and forwards across time and space and between generations, interweaving a series of stories that link seemingly disparate characters. And from the opening explosion in a desert, the dramatic incidents pile up in The Burning Plain: there are deaths, plane crashes, teenage pregnancies, emergency hospitalisations, cancer treatments and comas. When a nurse mentions a possible amputation, you fear the worst for the patient.
The first character we encounter is Sylvia (Charlize Theron), the manager of the swanky Clifton restaurant in Oregon, whose steely professional facade masks her inner pain. Sex with different male pick-ups is a joyless affair, and she also self-harms. She’s also being tailed around by mysterious Mexican Carlos (José María Yazpik). Gradually, through flashbacks, we piece together the traumatic incidents from her adolescent past in a New Mexico border town, which have caused Sylvia such emotional damage. It’s there that her younger self (played by Jennifer Lawrence) discovers her mother Gina (Kim Basinger) is having an affair with a married Mexican man Nick (Joaquim de Almeida).
The Burning Plain is at its most effective in its quieter moments, for example when observing the unusual romantic relationship that develops between the teenaged Sylvia and Nick’s son Santiago (JD Pardo), and it’s the newcomer Lawrence who provides the film’s most assured performance. Arriaga obviously has an affinity for the expressive powers of elemental landscapes, yet in his desire to illustrate how the past corrodes the present, his storytelling becomes unnecessarily cluttered. For a work that seeks to grapple with raw feelings of grief, guilt and anger, its own emotional impact is oddly subdued.
General release from Fri 13 Mar.