The latest movie from Guillermo Arriaga is as ponderous and slow-burning as you’d expect. Deep-seated emotional problems are examined in a complex movie that, as ever with Arriaga, refuses to fit into a straightforward narrative.
Split between two time periods and places, the first half of the film throws out pieces of a puzzle that the rest of the film endeavours to solve. Two families in New Mexico are tracked as mother of four Gina (Kim Basinger) engages in a love-affair with Mexican neighbour Nick (Joaquim de Almeida) who is a father of a relatively large family himself. Meanwhile in Oregon Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is running a restaurant, she is frequently smoking and looking pensive and apparently regularly engages passing sexual encounters. The alarm bells of emotional turmoil (a built-in mental device of many arthouse movie fans) begin to go off and the stage is set for Arriaga’s challenge.
What unfolds as we try to piece the narrative together is the story of fractured families whose pain leads to events that have repercussions more severe than could have been imagined. The affair between Gina and Nick has several nuances that prevent them from becoming villains, and force us to invest equal time understanding the troubles of all of the characters. Gina’s suspicious daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) is the most intriguing among them though, as she goes in search of Nick’s family and strikes up a relationship with his son Santiago.
To go too far into the journeys we are taken on throughout THE BURNING PLAIN would be to risk spoiling the experience, but suffice to say that there is plenty to digest as you piece together the puzzle. The trouble is that it is a lot to focus on, and Arriaga relies on our ability to identify with these people without giving us a lot of material to enable us to do so. Theron puts in a great performance as Sylvia, and succeeds brilliantly in imbuing her character with all of the troubles that could not (and should not) have been exposed fully on screen. Basinger is not far off in her depiction of Gina. The real kudos, though, goes to Jennifer Lawrence who realised that the key to her character is holding a lot of the feeling inside rather than writing it boldly on her face.
Overall there remained a niggling sense that Arriaga needed more time and space to suck us into the lives of his characters. Perhaps he would have been better served in the freer narrative world of novels than on the big screen. Nonetheless this is a film that is capable of paying dividends if you persevere with it. I remain of the opinion that an us film fans don’t always need to be led through a story by the hand, and Arriaga doesn’t just recognise this fact – he relies on it. If you go to the theatre with a keen mind and an eager imagination this is an incredibly rewarding film. Once the pieces fall into place you are left with a picture of such detail that it can will haunt you for days after with powerful and moving insights.