The Burning Plain

The Herald: August 2009

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The Burning Plain

Directed by Guillermo Arriaga

Starring: Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence, Jose Maria Yazpik, Danny Pino, Joaquim de Almeida, Robin Tunney, John Corbett

Guillermo Arriaga wrote ‘The Burning Plain’ fifteen years ago. The script was left untouched as he embarked on his ‘Death Trilogy’ with Alejandro González Iñárritu – the pair worked on Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. This year, the talented screen-writer has chosen ‘The Burning Plain’ for his directorial debut, with Charlize Theron taking the helm as his executive producer and leading lady. The script was dusted off at this point in time, Arriaga explains, as he finally managed to piece together the elements that made the story work. The film’s characters embody the four natural elements – water (characterized by Sylvia, a brooding young woman prone to peering off the treacherous cliffs in Portland, Oregon, to watch the sea crashing against the rocks below), fire (two teenagers, Mariana and Santiago, who seal their bond with his-and-hers scars burned into their wrists with a lighter) and wind (an older Santiago who is now a crop-duster). These dissonant elements converge within the fourth element, the earth – the site of a love-nest, a trailer, set ablaze in the desert on the periphery of the Mexican-American border. The trailer’s inhabitants, a man and a woman in the throes of an extramarital affair, are trapped in the inferno. The detritus of this affair and its horrific conclusion is the prism through which to view Arriaga’s splintered narrative, which seeks to connect multiple characters, landscapes and moments in time. Arriaga revisits themes of love, redemption and guilt already explored in 21 Grams and Babel as Theron’s character, Sylvia, must come to terms with a childish mistake made twelve years ago and the ripple-like consequences of this action.

Arriaga has a beautiful eye for detail. In the director’s seat, he is able to mould the film to match the brooding feel of the material, aided by veteran cinematographers Robert Elswit (who won an Oscar for his work on There Will be Blood) and John Toll.

Those familiar with Arriaga’s non-linear narrative style will not be disappointed by this film – it is a veritable jigsaw puzzle. Each individual piece and plot-line grabs your attention, but a view of all pieces fitted into place makes you want to watch the film once more to seek clues and markers you may have missed which now seem so obvious.

Discussing her character in the film, Charlize Theron noted that it is often a “death march” to find meaty roles for women within the film industry. The Burning Plain stands out as an exception – its three female characters are powerful catalysts, intriguing fictional entities who could carry a plot-line entirely focused on them.

Arriaga’s calling card – his screen-writing style – won him an Oscar nod for Babel. As he puts it, “my mind jumps from one place to another. For me, telling a story this way is more natural than telling it in a linear way.” The ruse, however, is quick to wear thin in The Burning Plain which ultimately reveals a simple plot-line that has been scrambled in order to reveal a depth that may not necessarily be there.