JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Burning Plain (Director/Screenwriter: Guillermo Arriaga) - January 29, 2009
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The Burning Plain

2.5 2.5
111 min.

Reviewed at the 2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival
So many scars, so little new

Multi-generational, non-linear storytelling can be intellectually stimulating, character-rich and paced to keep the pages flipping or—on the big screen—frames flying.

For those who’ve never met Cathy Trask in John Steinbeck’s masterful East of Eden, The Burning Plain will engage, fascinate and surprise. For the rest of us, the film pales in comparison to the long-ago tormented girl who forged her second chance at life after torching the family home, her parents unwittingly asleep in their death beds.

Other narrative similarities abound: unwanted pregnancies, name change to hide a secret past and living off the proceeds of sex (with writer/director Guillermo Arriaga having his heroine bed both staff and clients of her upscale Portland eatery while Nobel Prize winner Steinbeck had his conniving woman ply the oldest profession then plan and execute a deadly takeover to become the savviest Madame in California).

Happily, the ensemble cast provides many distinguished performances. Charlize Theron embodies the troubled Sylvia/Mariana readily, fucking all comers, savouring self-inflicted wounds and staring suicide in the face as the beautifully shot (Robert Elswit and Hohn Toll) high tide crashes onto ominous rocks, beckoning her to quash the aching misery once and for all.

Cancer-survivor Kim Basinger—whose surgical scar is one of many uses of altered skin that fill the script with all manner of ravaged flesh—plays the sexually starved perfect mother with gritty resolve. For the most part she’s entirely convincing in her double life of devoted parent and willing sex slave to the also unhappily married, Nick (Jaquim de Almedia). When her unquenchable infidelity is discovered—Why does it take 2 hours to buy a couple of yards of fabric?…—(but never overtly acknowledged) by her teenage daughter, Mariana begins to plan a fitting punishment: Don’t get mad get even takes on new meaning thanks to pent-up rage.

Nick’s son, Santiago (J.D. Pardo) the camera-pleasing younger—when the subtext of his line delivery ratchets up a notch or two, the potential for greatness is most promising—is the quiet foil to the impulsive Mariana (Danny Pino plays the small part of Santiago older).

Special notice goes to Tessa Ia as 12-year-old Maria. Already mature beyond her years, she’ll be one to watch—the final stare/dare at her reborn mother is one of the film’s best moments.

Arriaga, the gifted writer, making his feature directorial début, should now develop a storyline that doesn’t provide so many links to a single volume from the past (or outright announce the adaptation) and—it’s most certainly possible given his already impressive track record—unleash his own voice, vision and veracity in a film that will stand on his considerable creativity alone. JWR

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