Guillermo Arriaga's new film 'The Burning Plain'

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Charlize Theron stars in ‘Babel’ writer Guillermo Arriaga’s new film ‘The Burning Plain’, which has its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Dave Calhoun reviews it

As a writer, Guillermo Arriaga has wielded a strong influence over the last decade of American cinema both North and South, from his three scripts for his fellow Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to his screenplay for Tommy Lee Jones's directorial debut 'The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada'. As their success grew, so the focus of Arriaga's collaborations with Inarritu spread from the Mexico City of 'Amores Perros' (2000) to the United States with '21 Grams' (2003) and finally to the entire world with 'Babel' (2006). Along the way, Arriaga's signature writing style – fragmented, frenetic – and perennial concerns with death, borders and communication became repetitive and, for many, less convincing.

‘The Burning Plain’ is his first film as both a writer and director and is both familiar and, especially for anyone who found 'Babel' too slick, something of a relief. That's not to say that it's entirely a success – Arriaga's grip on his central, female character, a damaged single woman played by Charlize Theron, is too flawed – but it's compelling, much less tricksy and flashy than some of his previous work, and at its best has a creepy sexual intimacy to it.

Theron is Sylvia, a successful, well-liked manager at a coastal Oregon restaurant who has issues with her body: she's sleeping with both a fellow staff member and a customer and we watch her escape from a busy day to mutilate her thigh with a sharp stone in a queasy moment of self-harm. She also has secrets: why else is there a nervous-looking Mexican following her and waiting outside her apartment? Elsewhere, a trailer explodes in the New Mexico desert. We learn that married mom Gina (Kim Basinger) has been having it off with married Mexican Nick (Joaquim de Almeida) and it's their secret hideaway that's gone up in flames, killing them both. It's now that the most interesting part of the film develops: a tentative friendship emerges between Gina's eldest daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Nick's son Santiago (J D Pargo). It's a bond that's curious, forbidden, unexplained but understandable. Nothing else in the film makes as much sense. A third storyline involves two Mexican crop-dusters, one of whom brings his 12-year-old daughter to work with him. When he's injured in a plane crash, he asks his friend to take his child to the mother who she's never met.

Most familiar is Arriaga's presentation of disparate storylines that gradually make themselves known as related, like reticent cousins at a wedding. Only this time the fragmentation is temporal as well as geographical: the film operates over two periods, about 12 years apart, so that we see some of the same characters at two wildly different stages of their lives. This is refreshing and makes for curious viewing. Typical of Arriaga, though, is that as a director he hides this from us; nothing, be it clothes, furniture or current affairs, makes it obvious, at first, that we're watching a drama set in two different times. As ever, it's up to us to work it out.

It's all fairly involving, well performed and directed with a style that's unfussy and not at all glossy. But it's hard not to feel like this is all a little too melodramatic to get at the heart of its characters. There's a plane crash, a threatened suicide, an explosion, two deaths and a pregnancy. No wonder one's left with the feeling that for all the information we're given, we still don't really know much about Theron's character and where she's coming from. There's also something a little too pre-ordained and stereotypical about Arriaga's – and Theron's – portrayal of a 'troubled' woman. A little more nuance would have been welcome – but overall Arriaga has delivered a compelling and entertaining debut that stays true to his earlier interests.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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