The Burning Plain – Movie Review

Suggestions of a potential smash keep the audience hoping this film will come together but in the end it is too much and too little

Director/writer Guillermo Arriaga’s past screenplay successes can not be denied and this screenplay garnered a Golden Lion at Venice this year.  His monumental works include a Cannes Best Screenplay award for the cult underground Tommy Lee Jones classic “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” in 2005 and Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay for the critical and popular successes “Babel” in 2006 and “21 Grams” in 2003.  Based on the screen presence of “The Burning Plain” he should have stayed with screenwriting.  The screenplay is good enough but the rest of the film remains more of an experiment in a half dozen different acting styles than a cohesive interlocking story of love, loss and redemption.

Charlize Theron takes the lead in this film as a disaffected young woman escaping from a barren past in the wind blown scrub lands of West Texas.  She has only a share of the screen time as her story is one of several that weave in and out of the blank landscape and nearly sterile family lives that make up this screenplay.  Is it hard to say if she was disaffected by her minor part in the scripting or if she looked forward to a release of the pressure of having to shoulder the entire story.  In any event her acting is lack luster and her character lacks both the depth and the poignancy of the parts that made her a zillion award winner (Oscar included) for “Monster” in 2003 and to a lesser extent “North Country two years later.

Whereas her past parts have been that of a dis-empowered woman in this film she has a degree of power and misuses it.  This is a good switch for her but her eventual redemption is bogged down by a lack of screen chemistry and ultimately predictable dialog.  She is in the middle of two other women in the film and they seem to be fighting each other for the attention of the audience instead of combining into a team.  The pattern of three is intriguing and offers the potential of a powerhouse of intergenerational conflict but the audience is forced to fill in too many holes.

The eldest woman in the screenplay is the unfaithful Gina played by Kim Basinger on the way to another big comeback.  Gina is a very alienated housewife estranged from her husband in what will go down in history as the worst on-screen marriage in history.  Due to circumstances beyond their control her husband (Brett Cullen) is incapable of intimacy with Gina.  She is forced into the arms of Nick (Joaquim de Almeida) and both die horrible deaths locked together in the embrace of cheating lovers.  It is from this happenstance and the earlier trauma that turned Gina and her husband cold that set in action a chain of events that spans a generation and eventually leads to the redemption of some of the characters in the story.  Basinger won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in “L.A. Confidential” in 1997 and the quality of her acting in this film is at that level.  There is just not enough of it.

Emerging actress Jennifer Lawrence plays Gina’s daughter Mariana and she is forced to do a lot of the heavy lifting in this film.  She is the conduit for the bad blood of her mother’s infidelity and passing on of what amounts to a curse on the next generation.  JD Pardo does a good job of matching the helplessness and loneliness of the Gina character in befriending her and eventually becoming her lover.  The two teenagers are escaping from their surrounding into themselves and searching against all odds for something they have in common that can pass as love.  They form the perfect metaphor for a modern society out of touch with real human interaction.  The Venice Film Festival recognized this magic and awarded Lawrence the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Emerging Actor

This is a film that stretches the potential of the ensemble cast and interlocking story formula to the limits and the result is not a success.  There is too much quantity and not enough quality to pull everything together.  The film is a series of highs and lows and although the highs justify the time spent the result is too uneven for greatness.

Directed and Written by: Guillermo Arriaga

Starring: Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence

Release: September 18, 2009
MPAA: Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language
Runtime: 111 minutes
Country: USA / Argentina 
Language: English / Spanish
Color: Color