The Burning Plain

2009-06-05 09:29
The Burning Plain

What it's about:

Sylvia (Charlize Theron), a seemingly successful restaurant hostess who hides a painful past by having joyless sex with random men, is being stalked by a strange man. In a small New Mexico town, Gina (Kim Basinger) is torn between her responsibilities to her family and her passionate affair with a married man. In a seemingly unrelated parallel story, a crop dusting accident in Mexico brings the fate of a young girl full circle as she comes to learn why she was abandoned by her mother as a newborn.

What we thought of it:

It's hard not to be vague and surreptitious about The Burning Plain. It was, after all, written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga, a man renowned for finding complex ways to tell simple stories. By refusing to stick to predictable linear structures, his mostly suburban tales of alienation and redemption take on encroaching portent that can either result in crushing catharsis (21 Grams) or sprawling missed connections that's more effort than entertainment (Babel).

The Burning Plain sits somewhere in the middle, neither compelling nor melodramatic enough to wrench the requisite audience investment. Arriaga does, however, understand damaged human beings better than most, and in Theron he has the perfect incarnation of beauty, emptiness and sadness.

We've seen her in this type of role before – in fact, Sylvia almost mirrors the character she played in last year's Sleepwalking. What is it about these attractive losers that draws Theron to them? They've certainly given her  plenty of emotional depth to explore, and her foray into independently produced thought pieces (her Oscar-winning role in Monster, the upcoming The Road) have helped establish her as more than just Hollywood arm candy.

She certainly doesn’t have anything left to prove, so it's disappointing that this is what her career has now become – more serious than it needs to be. Anyone who caught her kooky guest appearances in the final season of acclaimed television sitcom Arrested Development will know that the girl can bring the funny too.

As far as ensembles go, The Burning Plain offers a rich mix of experience and fresh new talent. The standout is Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Mariana, Basinger's teenage daughter. She is a fiercely determined innocent who comes to learn just how screwed up the world can be the hard way – and Lawrence's restrained performance offers a devastating perspective.

It's not particularly enlightening or persuasive, and doesn’t try anything new, but for a few affecting performances and striking cinematography, The Burning Plain is at least another reminder that pain can often be beautiful to behold.

Charlize bares her wounded heart (and her boobs) in a movie about three generations of women struggling to find a way to connect.

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Jenny 2009/06/05 11:09 AM
How could you have preferred 21 Grams (long, boring, needlessly melodramatic) to Babel which was brilliant? Oh well, goes to show taste is subjective. Thanks for a well-thought out review.
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