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Review: The Burning Plain
The Burning Plain. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.
The opening shot of The Burning Plain is a stark one: a fully engulfed trailer in the middle of the desert, backed by rocky, dry mountains. The next scene is equally strong, as Charlize Theron awakes to gloomy surroundings, sporting a hangover and nothing else. There’s a moment where she makes it to a window, topless, in time to see a few school children notice her as they scurry off down the wet pavement. And then the next shot is...and then...followed by....
Truth be told, a review that continued to read like that - with all the contemplative pausing an ellipses can manage - wouldn’t be far off from what writer/director Guillermo Arriaga is trying to accomplish. This, in and of itself wouldn’t be a bad thing; plenty of writer/directors out there like to weave a story together and play with timing in a narrative. The difference, this time, is that the weaving is a bit too threadbare to really let the audience warm up to much of anything.
The Burning Plain attempts to follow several different plot points in what is essentially a family tree-style story, not unlike Arriaga's previous work (Babel, 21 Grams). There are different branches of varying sizes and importance, and eventually they’ll all lead down to a root cause, laying just beneath the surface. One involves a young blonde girl who is slowly discovering her mother’s affair. Another follows the young Maria, who at her father’s request must locate her never-before-seen mother. Then there’s Charlize, the beautiful girl who seems to have it all figured out, but is essentially devoid of any emotion other than sadness. There’s also Santiago and his family, struggling with the death of their father in the above-mentioned trailer. A full plate, I know. But for all of the wonderful imagery and cramped plotlines, you can’t help but feel like you’re at an overpriced sushi bar: you know all of the ingredients, there’s never much of a surprise, and as garnished as things are, the portions worth savoring are surprisingly small.
The biggest problem with The Burning Plain is that there are so many little problems, really. The dialogue never really connects, and sometimes takes the audience out of it completely (one moment is sufficiently ruined when a male lead blurts out ‘can I sleep with you?’ at an inopportune and confusing point). The acting is generally mediocre, with neither Kim Basinger or Charlize Theron doing much to distinguish themselves from a lesser cast. Although due credit must be given to Jennifer Lawrence, who is a young breath of fresh air, seemingly trapped in a vacuum of poor writing.
The film also jumps around too much, refusing to settle on a single, structured viewpoint - long after the audience has decoded the matchstick smoke and pocket mirrors Arriaga tries to hide his plot devices with. Unfortunately for him, the plot devices are too large to go unnoticed, while the story itself is too small and weak to be taken seriously. Many times in the film, big, suppressive statements go unchecked. There’s little in the way of character checks and balances, as if Arriaga is convinced that any smooth-sounding dialogue he can dream up will immediately play on screen.
How unfortunate that Arriaga, a truly talented writer, would be the fatal flaw to his own attempt at a masterpiece. Ultimately, The Burning Plain is a film that is elegant, engaging, and visually engaging - but only for the first 20 minutes or so. Once the wheels come off, there isn’t any part of the film with enough tread to keep the whole thing moving forward.
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