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IFFBoston 2009: The Burning Plain

the_burning_plainThe second film I caught at the Independent Film Festival Boston was Guillermo Arriaga’s directorial debut, The Burning Plain.  The film stars Charlize Theron as a woman disconnected from life hiding from a mysterious past and Kim Basinger as a married woman who falls in love with another man.  If you are at all familiar with the work of Arriaga (which includes Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel) then you’ll know they kind of structure he‘s working with.  It’s the typical fractured narrative that spans at least 15 years following a seemingly disparate ensemble of characters whose connections don’t become absolutely clear until the final act.  It’s Arriaga’s signature writing style that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.  Unfortunately, I’m afraid it works much better in the films he collaborated on with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

Not that The Burning Plain is a bad film at all.  It’s not.  It’s got great, solid performances especially from Charlize Theron.  And there are some interesting themes and imagery being worked on throughout the movie.  But things never feel like they come together at the end and things that are meant to be mysterious and just behind the veil, feel almost painfully obvious from the outset.  As the film seems to tell four disparate stories that are actually connected, it’s pretty easy to see how they do but it takes a while for the film to catch up to you.

The first story revolves around Charlize Theron’s character who works at a high scale restaurant in Portland who has become completely disconnected from life having meaningless sex with most anyone who shows any slight interest.  She does a great job of playing the kind of damaged psyche that is later revealed throughout the story.  The second and third story revolves around Kim Basinger’s character’s affair with another man and the aftermath of that affair on their families once they are killed in a freak propane accident in their secret love trailer.  And the fourth, seemingly most disparate of the stories follows a little girl who’s father’s plane crashes while crop dusting.

That’s all I’ll say without giving too much more plot specifics in order not to spoil anything but really if you’re paying attention, you’ll know exactly how it all ends about 45 minutes in.  Unlike Arriaga’s previous movies, I feel no need to revisit the film.  With his previous films, you could go back and find little things you may have missed because you were too busy trying to keep up with the story or other little bits and pieces to reveal the whole story.  That doesn’t come across here.  The constant imagery of birds is a nice little motif on being free, away from the shackles of family but showing how you are also running away from what is really important.

It’s a movie about family and love and how people must confront and come to terms with each other and the lives we choose to make for ourselves.  It just takes a needlessly convoluted way of getting there.  Rather than the movie leading you to these conclusions, I felt more like I was waiting at the end of the movie for the film to come to the same conclusions I did.

It’s a great actor’s movie with stellar performances by Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger as two women intimately connected through not just the men they’ve loved but the lives they’ve lost in one way or the other.  It’s another interesting writing exercise by Arriaga but in the end I was just thankful the movie finally ended.

It’s a great philosophy that I actually half agree with but the story in itself has to support that long term kind of planning.  In its bare bones, The Burning Plain is actually an incredibly simple story stretched out over years and years consuming these people’s lives.

In the end, it’s as solid, respectable domestic drama with great lead and supporting performances but a convoluted whole that never makes enough of its pieces.

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