Dir: Guillermo Arriaga. USA. 2008. 105 mins.
His much-publicised falling out with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu seems to have done Guillermo Arriaga the world of good. The Burning Plain, which the Mexican writer directed from his own script, is a powerful contemporary melodrama, more restrained but also much cleaner, in dramatic focus and emotional thrust, than the three films Arriaga penned for Inarritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel). Sure, his creative tics are still much in evidence: a tragic view of life that sometimes feels wantonly bleak, and an interest in tricksy non-linear plot structure.
But a sombre story about an unforgivable act and its cross-generational fallout is here leavened by a greater dose of hope and redemption than Arriaga has yet allowed himself, and the games The Burning Plain plays with its audience are amply justified by the emotional punch of the film’s denouement.
A full-on, Oscar-booking keystone performance by Charlize Theron and a revelatory turn by young newcomer Jennifer Lawrence steer this potentially over-the-top tale, at least most of the time, away from the reefs of implausibility, and the technical credits - most memorably DoP Robert Elswitt’s New Mexico landscapes - are all-round impressive.
As a director, Arriaga is certainly less flamboyant than his erstwhile creative sidekick, Inarritu. But that simply means there’s less to distract us from the old-fashioned drama that lies behind The Burning Plain’s po-mo jigsaw structure.
The Burning Plain has strong commerical genes as a quality Award-season product for more resilient audiences. Distributors are already in place for several territories including France, Italy, Japan and Latin America (the latter on a joint The Weinstein Company-Costantini Films ticket), and 2929 is likely to fill most of the gaps, including the all-important North American slot, in the wake of the film’s well-received Venice Festival competition debut.
Theron plays Sylvia, the manager of a swish seaview restaurant in Oregon, perched above the thundering waves that mirror, obviously but efficiently, her inner turmoil.
Sylvia’s poised work persona conceals an almost too insistently flagged self-hatred: she sleeps with any guy that asks her and a few that don’t, she cuts herself, she walks through life like a guilt-stunned zombie.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the desert (it turns out to be New Mexico), two families stand off at a funeral: one the relatives of the dead man, Mexican immigrant Nick, the other the husband and children of Gina, the all-American woman he had been having a passionate affair with - in an isolated trailer that burnt down when they were inside.
Teenage Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Santiago (JD Pardo) are soon meeting in secret to try to understand what exactly happened to her mother and his father; and a clandestine romance blooms. Neatly interleaved flashbacks reconstruct the affair between Gina (Kim Basinger) and Nick (Joaquim de Almeida), and the strain it puts on Mariana when she discovers it.
In the third plot strand Maria (Tessa Ia), a serious, resourceful adolescent Mexican girl, watches the plane her crop-duster father is flying plough into a sorghum field. From his hospital bed, the badly injured Santiago (Danny Pino) sends his distraught daughter off to the States with his friend and work partner Carlos (Jose Maria Yazpik) on a special mission.
It’s impossible not to admire the elegance with which these three narrative streams are gradually made to converge (tribute must go here to Craig Wood’s fluent editing as well as Arriaga’s script).
Some viewers may even feel that it’s all a little too neat and formulaic a package for such a raw story, and it’s certainly a surprise to see Arriaga writing expository dialogue that is sometimes excessively on-the-nose.
But it all makes good dramatic sense in the end. The puzzle-pattern is no longer an angry game of fragmentation as in the near-nihilistic 21 Grams, but an effort to put things back together again - on the audience’s part, and on Sylvia’s.
And the director shows sound instinct, too, in leavening the melodrama of the converging plot threads with moments of quiet observation - of the complex dynamics of family life, or the mix of humour and exhilarated relief of the late-life love story.
There Will Be Blood DoP Don Elswitt, and production designer Dan Leigh paint the film’s main setting - the desert fringes of New Mexico - as a place of beautiful but indifferent wide open landscapes, while Sylvia’s Oregon (shot by co-cinematographer John Toll) is an open prison of sheer cliffs and claustrophobic interiors.
And working with Mars Volta founder Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, prolific composer Hans Zimmer has come up with a soundtrack that plays engagingly off against the emotional and geographical landscape of the film, with twangling, reverb guitar melodies that keep things wistful when they threaten to get heavy.
2929 in association with Costa Films
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Omar Rodriguez Lopez
Joaquim de Almeida
Jose Maria Yazpik