THE BURNING PLAIN ****
It opens with a flash of shimmering white hot light.
A trailer explodes in the desert and bursts into flames.
Cut to a room in the emerald wilds of Portland, Oregon in the early morning. SYLVIA (CHARLIZE THERON) walks to the open window. She is completely naked. People pass by, see her and avert their eyes.
She doesn’t give a damn. She’s openly defiant and uncaring.
Sylvia is the manager of a luxurious high end restaurant. She has been having a meaningless affair with one of her chefs – a married man named JOHN (JOHN CORBETT). He lays motionless in the bed that she just left.
She’s angry and disgusted with him…and with herself. She urges him to go. He keeps pleading for another five minutes of serenity.
But Sylvia is far from serene. He spent the night. Now she wants him out.
Her friend LAURA (ROBIN TUNNEY) is also employed at the same establishment. They have a brief conversation as Sylvia steps into her car for the ride to work.
Laura is not particularly approving of Sylvia’s lifestyle – anonymous, casual sex along with a variety of noncommittal flings. But she’s fond of Sylvia anyway.
It’s up to her to make her own choices.
Once there, Sylvia gives John the cold shoulder. She’s all business. John is hurt. His life is a mess. He aches for this woman. She’s all he’s ever wanted.
Days later, a group of guys in expensive suits come into the restaurant for a business lunch. One of them asks Sylvia for a wine recommendation. His eyes flicker with desire and interest.
Sylvia leaves the building to take a walk. She is obviously tormented. It’s clear that she feels that she has done something so horrible that she can never forgive herself for it. She thinks that she must be relentlessly punished for her sins – for the terrible person that she is.
She cuts her thigh. Then she walks to the edge of a secluded cliff hundreds of feet above the water. Sylvia looks down at the pounding surf below. She is seconds away from throwing herself over the edge.
But she fights the impulse and it passes.
When she comes back, the fellow who made the inquiry is waiting for her. He thanks her and asks her out to dinner.
She initially refuses. Then she changes her mind. But she doesn’t have a social evening with him. She takes him back to her dingy apartment where they have sex. Her eyes are like haunted green glass. She is dead inside. It’s a joyless, empty exercise for her.
John is furious. When her new lover comes to pick her up at the restaurant, John has a big confrontation with both of them. Sylvia is mortified. John will not allow them to leave.
But another man has been following Sylvia for the past few days – shadowing her, watching her every move. He speaks little English but his comprehension skills are good.
He gets in the middle of this raucous argument. Sylvia asks if he will take her home.
At her place, Sylvia undresses, appears half naked and offers him a drink. When she tries to kiss him, he pulls away.
He isn’t interested in anything physical. But he needed desperately to find her.
In New Mexico, GINA (KIM BASINGER) is having difficulties of her own. She is particularly concerned about her 16 year old daughter MARIANA (JENNIFER LAWRENCE).
There’s also the matter of the strange poetic friendship that Mariana has with Santiago, a boy her own age who lives close by. Their mutual shared tragedies bring them together. A precious romantic bond is forged.
These three striking blonde women have a particular connection to each other. They are also trying to get over some deep destructive trauma that they have all experienced.
GUILLERMO ARRIAGA wrote and directed this film. He is best known for his collaborations with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams, Babel). Neither of those movies held up in the light of day.
But THE BURNING PLAIN is a searing, magnificent, quietly mesmerizing motion picture about the secrets that you keep and the ones that you need to move on from.
Fire has often been used as a metaphor for passion and uncontrollable heat. There’s plenty of it here – campfires, the desert, the blazing New Mexico sun.
Two world class cinematographers laboured gloriously on this motion picture and it shows: ROBERT ELSWIT (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) and JOHN TOLL (THE THIN RED LINE, ALMOST FAMOUS).
Portland has never looked so enchanting. It’s like a secret garden. New Mexico is a burnished golden paradise.
Mr. Arriaga’s direction is exceptional. He fashions a nonlinear narrative that’s breathtaking in scope and functions easily on more than one level.
It is a fantastic accomplishment.
CHARLIZE THERON is extraordinarily effective here. She did some fine comedic work early on.
But she should’ve won the Oscar for this film. She is riveting.
JENNIFER LAWRENCE has all ready received an award at the VENICE FILM FESTIVAL for her performance. She is exceptionally moving and does a marvelous job of conveying all of the subtleties that are necessary for her characterization to come alive.
A bright future awaits.
KIM BASINGER’S incredible classic beauty made people take her great talent for granted. She finally hit her stride in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and received a highly deserved ACADEMY AWARD for it.
She followed that up with spectacular acting in THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR.
But here she pulls out all the stops. She has a scene that is so affecting and emotional that her pain overwhelms you like a kick in the teeth. You understand what she’s going through and it absolutely breaks your heart.
It took tremendous courage for her to go to the wall like that. That sort of artistic bravery is rare these days.
KIM BASINGER is amazing.
In this twenty first century era of video game adaptations and formulated junk, THE BURNING PLAIN is a powerful brilliant antidote.
Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again.