Screenwriter: Guillermo Arriaga
Starring: Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence
Running Time: 105 mins
A terrific performance from Charlize Theron dominates Guillermo Arriaga's directorial debut The Burning Plain, a compelling drama that deals with a myriad of complex and dark emotional issues. Bearing the same non-linear, interwoven narratives of Arriaga's previous scriptwriting duties on Babel and 21 Grams, the movie is a satisfying and rewarding triumph that deserves to find a wide audience.
Knowing too much in advance about The Burning Plain's plot, and especially how the characters are interconnected, is definitely inadvisable. It's much more fun to use your own little grey cells to join the dots, particularly as these are scattered across time and space given the frequent, seamless shifts between past and present and the US and Mexico.
However, the story concerns self-harming, promiscuous restaurant manager Sylvia (Theron), who is followed from afar by a Mexican man armed with a shocking revelation. This strand interweaves with the tender affair of middle class and middle-aged Gina (Kim Basinger) with a bit of rough, which her troubled daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) stumbles upon before shacking up with her mother's lover's son Santiago.
But what exactly is the connection between these characters and the trailer that is shown exploding in a ball of flames at the very beginning of the movie? All is gradually unravelled in a very rewarding and absorbing manner, with the various incidents informing us as to why certain protagonists have acted in the way that they have and adopted destructive feelings.
As Sylvia, Theron underlines her status as one of the most authentic actresses in Hollywood. No stranger to looking less than glamorous on screen, she exudes inner pain and portrays a deeply fractured psyche with aplomb. Yes lads, she also gets them out within the first five minutes. Hopefully that will increase ticket sales for a cracking movie that doesn't sound very commercial on paper and will be a hard sell for the masses.
Her performance is nicely counterbalanced with that of Kim Basinger, who has improved with age like a fine wine. Still easy on the eye, she instills Gina with a quiet dignity and yearning for affection and physical fulfilment, which has taken a massive knock following the removal of a breast and the knock-on effect on her husband's libido. Special praise goes to Jennifer Lawrence, a surefire star of the future who is captivating as Gina's disturbed daughter.
Along with coaxing some fascinating performances out of the cast, Arriaga's first directing gig is impressive in the visual sense too. His style evokes both Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog with the use of the natural landscapes and its wild inhabitants. It ties in with the rawness and animalistic nature of some of the emotions experienced by the characters. Furthermore, a well-timed montage in the closing moments satisfyingly binds past and present together, before a somewhat surprising and ambiguous ending concludes proceedings.
Never overwrought or formulaic, The Burning Plain is an intelligent, deeply personal movie in which both form and content embellish each other.
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