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   Friday, September 25, 2009



The Burning Plain

Longing, Escaping, Belonging, Emotionally And Otherwise

Kim Basinger as Gina in Guillermo Arriaga's directorial debut film "The Burning Plain".  (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

By Omar P.L. Moore/     SHARE
Friday, September 25, 2009

Guillermo Arriaga has written films for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Babel", "21 Grams", "Amores Perros") and Tommy Lee Jones ("The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada") and now writes one for himself in his directorial debut film "The Burning Plain", which opened today in San Francisco and several other additional U.S. cities.  Mr. Arriaga succeeds to great effect here in his seminal turn behind the camera, crafting an adult story rich with emotional depth and complexity. 

"Plain" is a mystery seen through the eyes of a woman in severe pain.  Time and space have roiled the mind of Sylvia (Charlize Theron), a maitre d' at a restaurant in Portland, Oregon.  Caught between a rock and a hard place in her relationships, she tries to attain equilibrium in her life.  There's a young woman named Mariana (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Resentful of an affair of the heart, she seeks to follow her own heart against all the odds.  There's Gina (Kim Basinger), who engages in self-deception and yearns for escape.  Each of these women is given room to breathe and reflect on things they aren't proud of and Mr. Arriaga's storytelling and directing is adept and sharply focused, always keeping the audience absorbed and engaged.  Mr. Arriaga also showcases the beautiful imagery of the American west and utilizes the talents of cinematographer Robert Elswit ("There Will Be Blood") whose lens captures both warmth and cool in a film that harnesses all of its tension and unleashes some devastating punches.  Mr. Elswit's pictures are as beautiful and melancholic as the story itself.

Never asking the audience for pity, "The Burning Plain" doesn't celebrate or wallow in its ups and downs; rather it punctuates the tide of feeling represented by the gulf of communication between mothers and their daughters.  If a forbidden love can stain bonds then replenishment of the heart can renew them, and Mr. Arriaga gives his characters some great conversation and scenes of deafening silence to illustrate both unease and reconciliation.  Life's indirect travels are represented in a film that demands an audience's close attention.  Mr. Arriaga asks us to unwind a bandage of pain and pleasure and rewrap it using an entirely new dressing, and that's the kind of test he asks his onscreen characters to perfect. 

Ms. Basinger's performance is assured and courageous, and Miss Lawrence is terrific here as Mariana.  The weak link however is Charlize Theron, who as Sylvia doesn't quite bring her character full circle.  Miss Theron appears to be yearning to be believed in some of the film's more potent moments instead of just displaying her character and letting her be.  That's too bad, because "The Burning Plain" has a riveting web that ensnares and absorbs us in a compelling way and occasionally Ms. Theron doesn't appear as confident as the story is, especially in some scenes during the film's latter stages.  There's a hint of the disingenuous in her acting in the film's penultimate scenes, although for her tormented character it may be precisely what's required.  Though Mr. Arriaga's debut is let down slightly by aspects of Ms. Theron's performance it still stands solidly as one of the year's best and most emotionally authentic films.

With: J.D. Pardo, Tessa Ia, Jose Maria Yazpik, Joaquim de Almeida, Danny Pardo, Robin Tunney, Brett Cullen and John Corbett.

"The Burning Plain" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexuality, nudity and language.  The film's running time is one hour and fifty-one minutes.

Unscripted Popcorn: Omar's unscripted YouTube review of "The Burning Plain"

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