In the middle of a desert stands a burning trailer, the central event around which interlocking stories over a fourteen year period revolve. Flipping back and forth in time between three seemingly unrelated stories of love and family, the connections gradually become clear.
Written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, Babel and 21 Grams) it’s a movie of strong female leads; Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger and a young Jennifer Lawrence.
The convoluted structure is both challenging and intriguing. The first hurdle, working out who is the younger and older version of which character, then gives way to unravelling how they get to be those people. The dislocation between places – New Mexico and Oregon – is extreme, the jumps in time are subtle, as everything takes place in dowdy, run-down rather timeless settings.
The core of the piece is Arriga’s cast of troubled characters. You can tell Theron’s character is troubled by the way she smokes heavily, stares into middle distance a lot and stands naked in first floor windows, smoking and staring into middle distance. Her job as successful restaurant manager is at odds with her promiscuity and self-harming.
Meanwhile in New Mexico, Kim Basinger’s guilty housewife plays away from impotent trucker hubby with a virile married Mexican American, unaware that eldest daughter Jennifer Lawrence has discovered the affair.
But we already know that Basinger and her lover perished in the burning trailer and that Lawrence is beginning her own affair with the Mexican’s son. Quite how a Mexican pilot, his young daughter and his best friend fit into Theron’s story takes longer to fathom. It’s all set to a noteworthy and very different soundtrack scored by Hans Zimmer and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez.
It’s a deliberately fractured screenplay that delivers a beginning middle and end – but not necessarily in that order – that just about pulls off a resolution at the finish. Having done this before, Arriga arranges his mosaic to mitigate the worst soap-opera clichés and coincidences that would overwhelm this story in linear order. Instead of a slowly unfolding Greek tragedy, he makes you work through his puzzle (much like Christopher Nolan’s Memento). Once you assemble the picture for what it is, you may be a touch disappointed; ignore that, admire Theron, Lawrence and particularly Basinger’s stand out performances. RC
The Burning Plain (2008)
Director: Guillermo Arriaga
Writer: Guillermo Arriaga
Running time: 1 hr. 51 min.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Joaquim de Almeida, John Corbett, Robin Tunney, Brett Cullen, Danny Pino, Rachel Ticotin