Magnolia Pictures // 2008 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // January 12th, 2010
Love heals. Love absolves. Love burns.
The Burning Plain marks Guillermo Arriaga's feature directorial debut, but the man is certainly no stranger to filmmaking. His writing credits include memorable cinematic experiences such as Amores perros, 21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and Babel. It is no surprise then that The Burning Plain (Blu-ray) is a fascinating romantic mystery about a handful of individuals whose lives at one point clash through the powers of love and fate. As usual, Arriaga invites his viewers on an emotionally compelling journey they'll never forget.
Essentially, the film focuses on four interconnected love stories set at different times and in different locations. First, there's Sylvia (Charlize Theron, Hancock), a troubled Portland restaurant manager with a dark secret she tries to blot out by engaging in multiple sexual escapades. Then there's Gina (Kim Basinger, 8 Mile), a New Mexico mother and wife trying to overcome her lack of happiness in her marriage by having a passionate affair with another man. Third, we get to follow the story of Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), a teenager trying to understand her mother's shocking actions by engaging in a risky relationship with a stranger. Last but not least, there's Maria (Tessa Ia), a young Mexican girl struggling with the fact that her mother abandoned her shortly after her birth.
All four characters are in some ways connected to each other. As expected, Arriaga tells their stories in a nonlinear fashion, an intriguing technique he's been using in all his screenplays. There's something mysterious and inspiring about his writing that always successfully captures my full attention, and with The Burning Plain, Arriaga also proves he's a dab hand at directing. The film is a beautiful portrait of four women separated by time and locations, and each of their stories is an emotionally challenging ride exploring the various impacts love can have on someone's life. It's a mysterious puzzle viewers slowly get to solve as the plot progresses. When it all comes together in the end, the payoff is as dramatic as it is surprising.
What I like most about The Burning Plain is its structure and the way Arriaga chose to connect the stories and follow the journeys of his lead characters. When I interviewed him last summer, he told me he really wanted to associate the four stories or characters in his film with the four elements. Sylvia represents water, considering she's living at the coast; Gina represents the dusty earth; Mariana's segments include many scenes involving fire of some sort; and Maria's element is wind. It all comes together perfectly in the end. The look and feel of The Burning Plain are fantastic, and the meaning behind Arriaga's metaphors and the way he treats his characters and their experiences really manage to pull you into the engaging world he creates onscreen.
I also see this film as a journey of hope and redemption, considering we get to observe how each of these women deal with their painful experiences or memories by embarking on a journey to a better existence. As upsetting as love can be, it can also help forgive bad decisions and heal the deepest wounds, and each of Arriaga's characters sooner or later realizes that love is the only force enabling them to find second chances and start over. It's a concept that can work very well if characters are developed enough; in The Burning Plain, all of them clearly are. Now, because this is essentially still a mystery, this is all I'm going to say about this for now. It's up to you to discover the beauty of Arriaga's story. Trust me, you won't be disappointed with the end result.
Let me also talk briefly about the cast. The Burning Plain is a very emotional film in which Arriaga often made his actors engaging in the process of show and don't tell. Each of these main roles are very emotional and complex, and the cast really pulls it off. Theron is just wonderful as Sylvia, and she pretty much steals every scene she's in. Basinger also turns in a surprisingly honest performance, and so does Jennifer Lawrence, who was awarded for her efforts at last year's Venice Film Festival. Supporting performances by Tessa Ia, Joaquim de Almeida, J.D. Pardo, and Jose Maria Yazpik all work on many levels.
The Burning Plain is shot incredibly well, and visually, it's just a beautiful experience. Luckily, Magnolia gave the Blu-ray edition of the movie just the right treatment, The 2.40:1 non-anamorphic widescreen presentation looks gorgeous, and even though a few darker scenes appear a little grainy at times, the picture quality is surprisingly sharp and clean. This is a film utilizing many different colors, and they all look great on the small screen. The disc also comes with a solid 5.1 DTS-HD audio transfer, and the sound works just as flawlessly as the visuals.
In the bonus section, you'll find an extraordinary behind-the-scenes featurette about the making of the film. Clocking in at around 45 minutes, this is a very detailed look at everybody who made this movie happen. Arriaga gives viewers an introduction to the main people on the set, and for those with a strong interest in filmmaking and how things go down on set during a big production, this is just a wonderful extra. Music lovers will enjoy the music featurette as well. Here, Arriaga takes us on the journey of how the sound for the film came into being. The special features also include a short four-minute promo that aired before the film's theatrical release.
If you enjoyed Arriaga's earlier work as screenwriter, I'm sure you will enjoy The Burning Plain as well. It's certainly not a mainstream movie, but it boasts thrilling visuals and a superb storyline. This was one of my favorite movies of 2009.
Review content copyright © 2010 Franck Tabouring; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site