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The Burning Plain

The Burning Plain

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

GUILLERMO Arriaga, the talented writer behind acclaimed movies Babel, Amores Perros and 21 Grams makes his directorial debut with The Burning Plain, a stylish if slightly underwhelming drama starring Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger.

Employing his trademark multiple narrative structure, Arriaga again crafts an emotionally complex story of loss of innocence, regret and redemption that slowly comes together in both thought-provoking and intriguing fashion. But unlike his best work, such as Babel and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The Burning Plain doesn’t leave as lasting an impression despite the stalwart efforts of its strong ensemble cast.

Theron plays the troubled manager of a seafront restaurant in America’s Pacific Northwest, who is both sexually promiscuous and prone to cutting, while Basinger is an unhappy mother in a New Mexico border town whose only source of happiness comes from her extra-marital affair. We suspect these two women are connected, but only time will tell how.

Arriaga balances these two stories with the plight of a young girl, whose father becomes seriously injured in a crop-dusting accident, and the daughter of Basinger’s mother, who has started to embark on her own affair. There’s also the matter of a burning caravan to consider… and who may have perished within.

The Burning Plain works well on its ability to deliver an interesting set of flawed, yet believable characters. He draws honest, unflinching performances, too, with Theron particularly strong as the haunted restautant owner who is asked to confront her past.

As director, Arriaga makes good use of landscape, drawing well on the four elements that helped to inspire his screenplay, and never overplays the emotions. His film is a deliberately low-key, slow-burning affair that doesn’t resort to contrived melodrama.

The main problem with it is that you can see where it’s going quite early on and the resolution doesn’t do anything other than you were expecting, bringing with it an equal sense of satisfaction and disappointment. From a writer of Arriaga’s quality, you may have been expecting more.

Nevertheless, the film is worth seeing for Theron’s strong central performance, while Arriaga does enough to suggest that, with time, he can emerge as strong a director as he is a writer. He seems to have learned well from his past collaborations with the likes of Inarritu and Tommy Lee Jones.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 115mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: August 24, 2009