May issue 2009
A Scorched Past
The stillness and silence in The Burning Plain (written and directed by newcomer Guillermo Arriaga) articulates the latent emotions in the disrupted lives of the characters involved. The opening scene promptly gives a direct visual of the title, a fire blazing in a plain, with hills in the backdrop — a close-up reveals a conflagrant trailer. What follows is a convoluted non-linear explanation for the fire. Immediately after, a funeral takes place, of a man who we assume, died in the incident. In another thread running through the movie, Charlize Theron (who is also one of the executive producers for the movie) plays Sylvia, a woman who does not have her heart in the relationships she walks in and out of. She is evidently evading some secret that dogs her life. She is cold to the point of numbness.
Meanwhile an older woman, Gina (Kim Bassinger), living in the same plains that were torched, is involved in a passionate illicit affair. She is shown — first hesitatingly, then ardently — sneaking time out from her family life to meet up with a man clad in a plaid shirt with a truck, waiting for her by the roadside in the middle of nowhere.
Nowhere is what the landscape in the movie implies — the locations are bleak and minimal, so is the depth of relationships, the characters shared with the viewer. Gina’s daughter, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) makes the viewer feel that perhaps all women in Arriaga’s story lack emotional exuberance and joie de vivre. The teenager is as wooden in observing her mother’s erratic, mysterious behaviour, as she wordlessly takes over the responsibility of cleaning up the mess her mother leaves behind in her home and looks after her two younger siblings and father. Until the son of her mother’s lover shares knowledge of their parents’ surreptitious affair with her, she finds in him a person she could relate to in her otherwise disoriented life. However, their friendship does not in any way create a healthy form of love in her life. The two try to fathom the infidelity and, at the same time, the love their parents share in approaching each other as lovers, but it leads to Mariana’s further inner destruction.
As the story goes back and forth from a chilly, wet Portland town where Charlize Theron runs from one torment of her past to another, and the sun-flooded plains of the small town that Mariana grows up in, the scorched trailer bears in the viewers mind as an omen and an answer, that converges the disparate lives of Sylvia and Mariana.
Robert Elswit, the director of photography, excels in using the surroundings to frame and layer each scene with potent meaning. Kim Bassinger is convincing as a fragile woman, cherishing the moments of warmth and care that her lover touches her troubled and discontent life with. But Theron delivers a less-than-stellar performance, unable to let surface her deeper fears and angst about ever redeeming her darker past. On the other hand, the younger actress Lawrence delivers well during the climax of the movie, when the trailer explodes into flames before her eyes.
Not everyone will enjoy the incessant flashing in and out of the past, the present, and the various lives of the characters in the movie. It is sure to annoy many as it will intrigue. The simplicity of the dialogue and setting helps you get through to the end, with enough patience. The movie falls apart at the end though, where Theron’s final coming to terms with her past could have infused it with strength. More than just a self-destructive woman with bottled emotions, she comes across as utterly emotionally inept, uncomfortable and directionless in her role, overemphasising only the iciness she hides behind.