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The Burning Plain (2008)

Review: written Dec 2009

Fragmented tale of love as a cycle of pain, scars and healing

Frost Nixon (2008)

The directorial debut of Guillermo Arriaga, screenwriter of 21 grams and Babel, is a tortured piece of work. Rather like its characters, it is beautiful to look at but bleak as we come to understand it. Thankfully, we are left with a message of hope, but it's a fragmented journey getting there as we experience love as it evolves not just through joy and happiness but through pain and scars.

It's one of those multi-stranded stories Arriaga specialises in... except this time, it is not always different characters we are observing - it's the same ones, in different times. One strand with Kim Basinger, involves a married woman, sneaking off from her empty marriage at lunchtime to her lover, in a trailer on a plain. It's this trailer on fire which gives the film its title. Then, there is the teenage daughter who has her own secrets and is drawn to the young Mexican man who she meets at his father's funeral. Finally, Charlize Theron plays the beautiful restaurateur, who away from the style and poise of her role at work, seeks empty sex and self inflicted wounds.. what pain is she trying to hide? Does the answer lie in the Mexican man who follows her? If the strands don't stand fully composed as short stories in their own right, it's because they rely on each other.. so that the performance of one actress relies on notes set up by another. It's a typically convoluted piece of writing by Arriega. A final point, and this is where critics were on the whole less than kind, is that for much of the movie it is frustratingly ambiguous who is who and in what time, until gradually the picture becomes clear. It's a tangled story for the most part, and if you dislike activating your brain cells, then steer clear. In the end, the story is actually quite slight.. and yet it has some depth of feeling, scraping underneath the characters surface instead of adding layers onto them. It might not have much to say, and the characters may not always be endearing, but it is nonetheless thought provoking and beautifully shot in sparsely filled though elegantly framed widescreen. Frankly I found it more satisfying than the more star-studded and acclaimed Babel. Certainly, the performances from the three leads: Theron, Basinger and relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence are utterly outstanding. There is no grandstanding here.. just terrific understated turns from some of Hollywood's best.

If bleak cinema and tragic characters are your thing, then step right in. If it's action or easy moral certainties you seek.. move along, there's nothing for you here.

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