Published Oct 15, 2009With yellow representing the past and blue/grey washing out a bleak present day, The Burning Plain weaves together stories of Sylvia (Charlize Theron) and Gina (Kim Basinger), two women forced to suffer for sexual desires and romantic confusion.
Sylvia beds any man that pays her attention, cutting herself afterwards, while Gina cheats on her husband with Nick (Joachim de Almeida), leaving her daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) filled with rage. Inevitably, these unsavoury behaviours come to a head, connecting these women through the fire, both figuratively and literally, spelled out in the title.
Given writer/director Guillermo Arriaga's pedigree writing Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, we can bet that The Burning Plain, his feature directorial debut, boasts a similar template of fractured narratives jumping through time and space to connect worldly plights. The problem here is that this structure actually impedes this tale of inability to escape one's past, revealing emotions and arcs at inappropriate intervals, numbing potential impact and deadening the able performances from both Basinger and Theron.
How the stories ultimately fit together isn't much of a mystery, leaving the narrative technique to do little more than act as a pretentious dalliance for the sake of seeming artistry. It's a shame, as the strength of the film comes from the very character trajectories that are stunted for this stylistic whimsy.
On the upside, the air of foreboding throughout keeps everything engaging enough that we care about the outcome, while crisp cinematography and standout scenes between Basinger and Almeida give the film intensity. This emotional entanglement and a pseudo-feminist template should ensure a more favourable response from female viewers, more apt to identify with the central struggle.
While certainly flawed in execution, falling short of the impact it so desperately strives for, The Burning Plain has its merits, featuring nuanced character interpretations from the leading women and glimmers of further potential. (E1)