Sunday, 23 October 2011


“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” - Oscar Wilde

We watched a very good movie last weekend. It was Guillermo Arriaga’s 2008 movie “The Burning Plain” with Charlize Theron, John Corbett, Kim Basinger, Joaquim de Almeida, Jennifer Lawrence and José María Yazpik. Arriaga has written the screenplay of this movie, but he also has several other screen-writing successes under his belt: “Babel” (2006), “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005), “21 Grams” (2003), “Amores Perros” (2000), amongst others.

The film is quite complex as it is told in flash-forwards/flashbacks, examining the lives of seemingly unconnected individuals, who by the end of the film are intimately interconnected. The themes are infidelity, motherhood, self-image and self-worth, childhood and different forms of love. The story is straightforward enough as the ending will show, however, following a trend amongst “modern” film-makers, it has been made as complicated as possible by showing it to us out of order, in temporal and geographical disarray. This device detracts from the compelling story, and draws attention to the film-maker’s technique, and away from the drama that is central to the plot.

“The Burning Plain” starts with very dramatic scene in which a caravan in the middle of the southwestern US desert blows up and is enveloped by all-consuming plains. This event is the connection point for all characters of the film, only we, as viewers, do not know it yet. Arriaga tells the story of four women and a young girl: Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is a restaurant owner who has an affair with one of her married employees (John Corbett), but is deeply unsatisfied and sleeps with other men; Gina (Kim Basinger) is a typical American housewife, except that she is a breast cancer survivor and is cheating on her husband (Brett Cullen) with a Mexican man named Nick (Joaquim de Almeida); Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), Gina’s daughter, has the most problems, especially after she starts a relationship with Nick’s son Santiago (JD Pardo); Maria, a young girl who travels from Mexico to the United States with a family friend to find her long lost mother.

The film is gritty and confronting, with several scenes and themes that some people may find extremely challenging. It makes several important points about contemporary morals, “modern” relationships and family ties. There is an underlying sub-theme about cultural differences between Mexicans and Americans but this is subtle and not overly explored. Sylvia is played extremely well by Theron, who manages to be convincing, powerful, vulnerable and intense, just as the role demands. Some of the most touching and poignant moments in the film come from Basinger, who is usually good at playing damaged, vulnerable women. From the males, de Almeida has an immensely sensitive and tender role to deliver, which he does exceedingly well given his fame as a rough crime lord in “Desperado”. Lawrence plays her difficult role with aplomb and maturity justifying the Mastroianni Award for “Most Promising Newcomer”, which she won at the Venice Film Festival. Many of the supporting actors (e.g. Corbett) play remarkably well and command the screen with their presence, even though they are not on for much time.

This is a very good film, notwithstanding Arriaga’s directorial debut and his somewhat brusque and sometimes formulaic devices in terms of plot and direction. The film deserves my recommendation and one can watch it with interest and be touched by the broken lives it depicts. It is a realistic drama that has strength and poignancy. The psychological baggage the characters carry with them many viewers will identify with, to an extent, and the story is interesting enough to satisfy the even the most seasoned cinephile.


  1. 'a realistic drama'

    I may yet feel courageous enough to watch it.

  2. This was a very moving and poignant film. I admit that I bawled my eyes out! Good review.