The Burning Plain

This is what it's like to be stalked by a dark, handsome stranger.

This is what it’s like to be stalked by a dark, handsome stranger.

(2008) Drama (Magnolia) Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence, JD Pardo, Tessa Ia, John Corbett, Robin Tunney, Joaquim de Almeida, Rachel Ticotin, Jose Maria Yazpik, Danny Pino, Anthony Escobar, Stacy Marie Warden, Debrianna Mansini, Kacie Thomas. Directed by Guillermo Arriaga

In a relationship we take it on faith that our partner will be faithful to us. Of course, that doesn’t always happen. The consequences of infidelity can be far-reaching and are not always paid just by the one doing the cheating.

Gina (Basinger) is a housewife who has embarked on an affair with another man, who is also married but not to her – ruggedly handsome Nick (Almeida). They meet in a ramshackle mobile home stuck out in the middle of the New Mexico desert not far from where Gina lives but far enough off the beaten track that there’s no auto traffic. Gina and Nick’s little love shack however proves to be not as safe a place as they thought – and there they meet a tragic end.

Gina’s daughter Mariana (Lawrence) is trying to cope with her mother’s death. Both her family and Nick’s family are at odds with one another, each blaming the other family’s relative for being the catalyst for the affair leading both of them to their doom. Nick’s son Santiago (Pardo) is desperate to find answers and he initiates a conversation with Mariana which blooms into something more.

Sylvie (Theron) is the manager of a high-end restaurant in Portland, Oregon. She is affected by an air of melancholy which is exacerbated with routine bouts of loveless sex, temperamental behavior and frequent absences from work. She smokes incessantly, staring at the sea and the waves crashing on the rugged coastline. She is being followed by Carlos (Yazpik), a mysterious man who speaks no English.

Santiago (Pino) is a crop duster who knows his business backwards and forwards. When his plane crashes in a terrible accident, his daughter Maria (Ia) is heartbroken. Santiago makes his good friend go looking for her mother up North, a woman who suddenly and inexplicably abandoned her family after Maria was born.

If you thought this was a movie from Mexican filmmaker Alexander Gonzalez Inarritu, you’d be half-right – this is from his regular writer Guillermo Arriaga. Entwined storylines that gradually coalesce into a single cohesive story is something of a trademark with Inarritu; Arriaga is unfortunately less successful with it here.

It’s not because he didn’t have the right actors. The three female leads give incendiary performances albeit all tinged with melancholy and heartache. Lawrence, who has since gone on to win an Oscar and become one of the most acclaimed young actresses in Hollywood, is a teenager whose own emotions are a seething cauldron of confusion to her; she feels rage at her mother’s betrayal but also grief for her passing. It’s not an easy part to play and she does a good job playing it.

Basinger has the thankless role of playing a woman in a marriage that seems happy on the outside betraying her family. It’s not the kind of thing that makes a character lovable or one you want to identify with; in fact these kinds of actions tend to make audiences feel uncomfortable with that character and yet Basinger gives the character warmth and relatability. Gina is a good mom and a good wife (other than the infidelity thing) but Nick let’s her access a part of her that her marriage and family life no longer allow – her sense of being an individual, a sexual being and someone who is desirable and desired. That’s a powerful feeling and one that we all need to feel, regardless of our marital status.

Theron is icy cool at the movie’s beginning, closed off and emotionally guarded. Sylvie lives in a sterile environment that betrays nothing about her and love for her has become a series of meaningless sexual trysts. As the movie progresses and we begin to learn more about her, we see the terrible burden she bears. Theron wisely let’s Sylvie’s guard down in fits and starts and as her walls crumble, so too does the movie excel.

The movie’s downfall comes from its storytelling style. All of the stories are interweaved and as the movie progresses we realize that they aren’t concurrent – they take place in different timelines. This can be confusing to the audience as they struggle to figure out who’s who and as more of the plot gets revealed the story should be coming together but in some ways it isn’t too hard to guess what’s going on but in others it really is because Arriaga is so deliberately vague. It’s quite maddening at times.

Still the power of the performances and the storyline make this worthwhile at the end of the day. Just be warned that a good deal of patience is required and a little bit of observation. It’s easy to lose yourself in the acting, particularly the women. It might however distract you from following the storylines you need to be aware of in order to make sense of this.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances by Basinger, Theron and Lawrence.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The jumps between stories and timelines makes the film choppy and unfocused.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity and plenty of sexuality as well as a bit of foul language. Mostly it’s adult in a thematic sense.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Arriaga spent 11 years as a screenwriter (most notably for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) before choosing this novel, one of the most acclaimed in recent years written in Mexico, as the basis for his directing debut.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interesting featurette on the musical scoring of the film, a segment that rarely gets attention on home video extras.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on a $20M production budget; unfortunately the movie hasn’t recouped its production costs.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfaithful

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: G.I. Joe: Retaliation

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