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Rated 2.99 stars
by 302 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Superb Storytelling
by Diana Saenger

Sometimes while watching a movie it’s surprising to discover a totally unexpected story that surpasses expectations. The Burning Plain, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s debut film as a director, emerges as one example. For viewers open-minded to experiencing three different stories for a resolution, the payoff is well worth it.

Sylvia (Charlize Theron) manages a seaside restaurant in Oregon. She appears to move through each day unfocused and somehow damaged within. This seems particularly evident when she takes dates to her room and has uninvolved sex with them. Even when John (John Corbett), a cook at her restaurant, wants their sexual tryst to be more, she rebuffs him.

The film then transitions to a story hinted at in the beginning of the film. Gina (Kim Basinger) feels unfulfilled in her marriage. Her husband goes on the road a lot, and when he’s home he’s too tired or disinterested in Gina to give her the affection she seeks. However, Nick (Joaquim de Almeida) thinks the world of Gina, so she sneaks away as often as she can to have a passionate affair with him without regard to her children or to the fact that he’s also married.

Already immersing us in the intrigue of these two stories and how they relate, Arriaga adds a third subplot dealing with Mexican crop duster and single father, Santiago (Danny Pino). When his plane crashes and he’s hospitalized, he seeks help from his best friend (José María Yazpik) to find his young daughter's mother in case he doesn’t recover.

Arriaga has proven his extraordinary talent at storytelling in many of the films he’s written. Including his Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Original Screenplay for Babel (2007), his The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) 21 Grams (2003), and Amores perros (2000) have won numerous awards.  

Walter Parkes (Gladiator), one of The Burning Plain’s producers, praises Arriaga. “What particularly excited us here, beyond the evocation of the ‘four elements’ as the basis of a script,” Parkes said, “was the fact that Guillermo wanted to use his unique structural approach to unravel and elucidate the emotional mystery of a central character -- Sylvia, who is really the lynchpin of the entire story and who we knew would attract a great actress.”

An exceptional cast heightens the intrigue of the story’s unraveling. Theron is one of the best actresses in Hollywood today. She’s commanding and believable every minute she’s on screen. As Sylvia, we’re not sure of her story but captivated by it in her first scene. Theron was hooked on the role after her first read through of the script. “I found myself thinking about it nonstop and that’s always a good sign,” said Theron, who also served as an executive producer on the film. “This story and the other characters in the film force Sylvia into a corner. You get to a place in your life where you have to step up and face your demons, face your reality. That’s the difference between us and every other animal: we can overcome our initial instinct to protect ourselves from pain.”

Basinger is equally effective as the wounded and gloomy Gina. Arriaga stated that she embodied “this contradiction between what is going on in the mind and the heart.”

Other casts members bring a high caliber of talent to the film. Jennifer Lawrence is very impressive as Mariana, Gina’s daughter who makes a grave decision with serious consequences for many people. Pino and Yazpik offer terrific emotional arcs as best friends looking out for each other.

The Burning Plain was shot by two leading cinematographers who covered different location shoots. Academy award-winning Director of Photography Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) fills each scene with one visual storytelling moment after another. Academy award-winning John Toll (Braveheart) took over at another location and blends his incredible sense of visualization perfectly with Elswit’s work.

As a writer I’m always interested in the story first, and Arriaga ranks among Hollywood’s top writers. So it’s exciting to me when I see him complementing his work as a director. I found The Burning Plain to be one of those movies you continue to think about and admire long after leaving the theater.

(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated “R” for sex, mild violence, and adult themes)

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