Posted: 08/30/2009


The Burning Plain

by Del Harvey

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We are unusual animals. Our emotions make us complex and difficult to understand, at times. For some whose lives have been particularly painful, we can put up barriers to prevent anyone from breaking through, no matter how much they care.

Charlize Theron plays Sylvia, with her beautiful face and woman’s body surrounding a very sensitive and complex individual. She seems bent on living her life without ever confronting whatever horrible and complex emotions are bubbling just under the surface. Men offer attention and she cuts to the chase; sex comes easy for her, but a relationship is too difficult a thing to ask. Whatever darkness lies in her past, she is clearly avoiding it. She seems to do her job of managing an upscale Portland, Oregon area restaurant well, but also seems unable to turn down any opportunity to escape whenever a new man expresses interest.

The film takes a while to get going, and it does so for a reason. I say this as a warning to that multitude of filmgoers who seem to have ADHD when it comes to watching a film with any dramatic content yet lacking in explosions or CGI generated characters. To the rest of you who enjoy your characters with dimension and depth, and your stories complex yet very much like real life, then you should find The Burning Plain an amazing film, indeed. But this film also plays with time, in much the same way as David Hockney’s photograph “Pearblossom Hwy. #2,” composed of a mosaic of over 700 photographs that depict aonce desolate desert landscape. The director continually jumps back and forth in time, alighting at various intervals to weave together his own dense mosaic story whose fabric is comprised of human emotions running through several generations and whose texture is patterned by desert winds and coastal rains.

This is Guillermo Arriaga’s directorial debut. He is also the screenwriter, and with this film continues the type of quality work exhibited in writing the screenplays for Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. I expect The Burning Plain to earn him another Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, if not also one as Director. His story arises from the character’s deep-rooted needs for finding understanding of themselves and their own desires. His ability to seemlessly fuse these two elements into a cohesive narrative is once again shown to exemplary effect.

Ms. Theron, already an Oscar winner, will likely be nominated again for her portrayal of a woman on the edge who takes an emotional journey back to the defining moment of her life. Her character’s cool and professional demeanor masks a deep-seated self-loathing hidden beneath the sexually charged storm within. Her string of motel interludes is interrupted when a stranger from Mexico confronts her with her mysterious past, and Ms. Theron’s Sylvia is forced to embark upon a journey through memory and time that inextricably connects her to these disparate characters, all of whom are struggling with their own inescapable destinies.

One of these excursions takes us to Mexico, where young and motherless Maria (Tessa Ia), lives happily with her father and his best friend, until a tragic accident changes everything. In the story’s disjointed “shards of time” structure, we are also taken to the New Mexico border town of Las Cruces, where teenagers Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Santiago (JD Pardo), find love in the wake of their parents’ sudden death. And in another segment of time, in an abandoned trailer out in the desert, a housewife, Gina (Oscar-winner Kim Basinger), finds her own form of escape in a passionate love affair that affects everyone, eventually putting Sylvia and the others on a collision course with the dark secrets buried deep in the mysteries of the human heart.

The Burning Plain is a story of immense emotional power, filled with characters whose tragic lives touch upon elements which many of us have known in some form or other and may even have found a reason to escape from in our own search for some sense of self. Writer/director Arriaga proves once again his great understanding for the darkly tragic and the burning bright in all of us, as well as in the complex structure of human nature.

THE BURNING PLAIN is now available on VOD (August 21, 2009) and hits theatres September 18, 2009.

Below are the links to trailers for The Burning Plain at Amazon and XBOX Live Marketplace:

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.

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