65/100 (107 min, 2008)
Plot: A drama with a two-tiered storyline concerning a mother and daughter who try to form a bond after the young woman's difficult childhood.
Charlize Theron, Kim Basigner and Jennifer Lawrence
Love heals. Love absolves. Love burns.
If you are a movie fan you are probably familiar with the name Guillermo Arriaga. He is the guy who wrote scripts for many great Alejandro González Iñárritu's movies including Amores Perros, Babel and 21 Grams. The Burning Plain is his feature film directorial debut and it really shows his lack in experience when it comes to directing. While the story has many strong points and well written characters, the script is too chaotic. However what ultimately drags the movie down is the execution of that script .
To summarize the plot would be an impossible task - we watch three different women - Sylvia, (fantastic Theron) successful but self-destructive woman who hides her regrets and anger by engaging in casual sex, often with men she barely knows, Gina (Kim Basigner) who has recently beaten breast cancer and now finds herself engaged in an affair with a man, while at the same time pulling away from her husband and her daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) who sees her mother actions and doesn't understand them.
The trademark of Arriaga's scripts is the whole variety of characters who are always connected in some meaningful way and the distorted chronology in showing the events. While it usually worked in Inarittu's movies, here it is just annoying and while the big twist may be surprising - though that surprise comes from strange casting decision - the unnecessarily convoluted plot isn't very impressive. It's like this - non-linear narrative works if there is some bigger purpose for using that storytelling device and if it adds something meaningful to the film itself. Here it is just gimmickry that is unsuccessfully trying to cover up how thin the story really is.
While there are strong emotions, painful mistakes and heavy hearts everywhere in this story the impact of them, apart from Sylvia's story, comes to us only in the ending montage which was fantastic. The rest of the film is too messy for us to have any real connection with the characters, even if the actors are trying their hardest. That is everyone but John Corbett who in addition to being a complete miscast is as usual painfully bland. The problem is also the pacing - some scenes go on for way too long, while some are cut much too soon.
Right after Theron, the film's biggest advantage is the truly beautiful cinematography - the stories have different color themes - Sylvia's scenes are shot in blue to show her sadness and the darkness she lives in, while igniting passion between Gina and her lover and Mariana's youth and naivety are colored with yellow. The frames are beautifully composed, especially when it comes to Sylvia's story when we frequently see the sea, rain and stormy clouds, making it seem almost as if the entire world was a burden for her to handle.
There is a bit of tension added to Gina and Mariana's story but to go any further would be spoiling the movie. As much as I enjoy seeing Basigner on screen and Lawrence is very impressive (this film precedes her Oscar nominated work in Winter's Bone) their story lacks substance - both when it comes to the events and to the character's motives for doing what they do. Still, the film is beautifully shot and Theron alone is able to carry it. The trouble is she is required to do so, because of the weakness of the script and inexperienced director.