Combustible Celluloid
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With: Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Joaquim de Almeida, John Corbett, Robin Tunney, Brett Cullen, Danny Pino, Josˇ Mar’a Yazpik, Jennifer Lawrence, J.D. Pardo, Tessa Ia, Rachel Ticotin, Diego J. Torres, Rafael Hernandez
Written by: Guillermo Arriaga
Directed by: Guillermo Arriaga
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, nudity and language
Language: Spanish, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 107
Date: 08/29/2008

The Burning Plain (2009)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Trailer Hitches

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Back in 2006, many film writers became excited about a certain movement, a kind of Mexican New Wave. Three major movies released toward the end of the year, Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, spearheaded this excitement. There were several other, smaller films in the movement as well, including Carlos Reygadas' Battle in Heaven and Fernando Eimbcke's Duck Season, which most writers seem to have missed, but that's another story. A slightly bigger story was the feud that cropped up between director Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga over the three films they made together (Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel).

It seems that each man wanted to take most of the credit for the success of all three films, to the detriment of the other. Outsiders could not tell which one was right, though given Iñárritu's overall lack of directorial personality, and the fact that Arriaga also wrote Tommy Lee Jones's superb The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, it looked as if Arriaga were the odds-on favorite. Unfortunately, here comes Arriaga's own directorial debut, The Burning Plain, to prove everyone wrong. It's a dreary slog of a movie that's so tightly wound and so full of its own convictions that if it seems to loosen up or breathe for just a moment, we know that it's really just foreshadowing the next disaster. Hence, it's all too easy to read in advance. (If someone stops to make tortillas for lunch, get ready for a plane crash.)

None of the characters breathe, either. They're knocked helplessly, lifelessly around in the service of the oh-so-serious story. Like Babel, it's a kind of triptych in which two parts are clearly connected, but the third doesn't quiet click until later. Kim Basinger stars as Gina, a housewife and mother of four children living in New Mexico. She is having an affair with a kindly Mexican man, Nick Martinez (Joaquim de Almeida), who is also married and with a family; they meet halfway between their homes in a trailer in the middle of nowhere. Their affair is shown as loving and trusting, which makes this the most interesting segment of the film. Early on it is revealed that Gina and Nick died together when their trailer exploded, and that their scenes together are merely flashbacks.

Next, in a different timeline, we follow Gina's teen daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), who finds out about the affair and begins to act in disturbing ways (though it's fairly evident that she was screwed up before she discovered the affair). Nick's teen son Santiago (JD Pardo) seeks out Mariana to find out more about their parents' affair and they begin a strange relationship of their own, which includes burning their arms with lighters and wearing their dead parents' clothes. The performances and writing in this segment is the most painful, and it's difficult to understand or justify the behavior of the teens, or those around them.

Finally, we have Sylvia (Charlize Theron), who runs a successful restaurant in Portland. She's pretty screwed-up too, carrying on sexual affairs with several men at once and behaving alternately chilly and obsessive. (It looks as if Theron is working exclusively for another Oscar nomination.) A mysterious Mexican man, Carlos (José María Yazpik), watches her from a car for a while, and then approaches her. He tells her that she has a daughter, Maria (Tessa Ia), which is not exactly news Sylvia wants to hear. Soon after, however, she decides that she wants to see her daughter, but Carlos and Maria have decided that Sylvia had her chance and that it's too late. Again, the drama here is a real stretch, and even when the connection to the rest of the story becomes clear, it doesn't help much.

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