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Burning Plain, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 09/26/09 03:00:00

"The banality of lovers is for them, not you..."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

It's rare that screenwriters obtain the opportunity to direct and when they direct and fail (at least commercially), they’re right back where they’re started, writing screenplays for someone else to direct. Arthouse audiences may know Guillermo Arriaga (assuming he's known at all) to as the screenwriter of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s three films, "Amores Perros," "21 Grams," and "Babel." Structurally, Arriaga has shown a distinct preference for multi-strand, non-linear narratives. No longer content with writing screenplays for other directors to helm, Arriaga decided, as many screenwriters before him (and after him) have, to direct his own screenplay. The result, "The Burning Plain," is an uneven, over-obvious drama, brought down even further by Arriaga’s rudimentary skills as a director.

As with Arriaga’s previous films, The Burning Plain turns and circles around a central event. Actions flow into the event, consequences flow out of the event, but in typically non-linear fashion, effects don’t follow causes, causes follow effects. In the case of The Burning Plain, the central event is the destruction of a trailer by fire in the New Mexico desert in the early to mid-1990s (something Arriaga initially hides from his audience). The fire left two people dead, tragically affecting two families, one Caucasian and one Latino. In the past, two teenagers, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Santiago (J.D. Pardo), begin a romantic relationship expressly against their parents’ wishes.

In the present, Mariana, now calling herself Sylvia (Charlize Theron), manages a restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Still carrying the emotional (and physical) scars of that long-ago traumatic event, Sylvia engages in casual sexual encounters with her customers, while having an affair with one of the cooks, John (John Corbett). When Carlos (José María Yazpik), a Mexican man appears with a 12-year old girl, Maria (Tessa Ia), in tow, Sylvia’s forced to face the actions that led to the deaths of her mother, Gina (Kim Basinger), and Santiago’s father, Nick (Joaquim de Almeida), and the consequences that followed, including her relationship with the now-adult Santiago (Danny Pino), whom she hasn’t seen in more than ten years.

As in Arriaga’s previously scripted films, a single action, often misguided, can have devastating emotional and physical costs for the perpetrator, the victim, their friends, and their families (essentially anyone in their orbit). As, alas, with Arriaga’s previous films with Iñárritu, The Burning Plain suffers from the same simple, simple-minded, reductionist psychology (e.g., Sylvia’s promiscuous behavior can be traced back to her mother’s betrayal, her mother’s infidelity can be directly linked to her loveless marriage). Complex psychology, complex responses to specific actions seem to be beyond Arriaga or his characters’ abilities. Thematically, Arriaga reaches for profundity, but instead sinks into banality.

If, however, Arriaga has taken anything away from his collaboration with Iñárritu, it’s in the delicate, nuanced performances he draws out of his cast. Of course, it helps to have Charlize Theron, an Oscar-winning actress (for "Monster") in the lead role and Kim Basinger, another Academy-award winning actress (for "L.A. Confidential"), in a supporting role, but Arriaga elicits uniformly convincing performances from his entire cast, including the younger, presumably less experienced actors and actresses. They elevate Arriaga’s dialogue and character situations from the clichéd and the banal to, at times, the emotionally resonant and authentic. Unfortunately, performances alone aren’t enough to recommend "The Burning Plain" beyond, at best, a DVD rental or ate-night cable viewing. As for Arriaga, it’s time for him to retire the non-linear plot device and abstain from making grandiose statements about the human condition.

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