Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 111 minutes
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Whenever Charlize Theron goes to the dark side, we can’t help recalling her performance in “Monster,” which could have freaked out even Eileen Wuornos, the story’s gruesome inspiration. Even Theron’s less showy roles, like those in “In the Valley of Elah” and “North Country,” capture an emotional intensity that is becoming her trademark. Her early, eyelash-batting parts, such as the one in “Cider House Rules,” just didn’t inspire her; those performances were credible and charming, even if flat and too even. Thankfully, someone in power saw something during one of her table reads – a moment of inspiration that disarmed that pretty face. Thinking back to “Monster,” the role reminds me less of the real-life killer than Lon Chaney, who in his best roles – see his masterwork, Tod Browning’s “The Unknown” – realized haunting interiors behind his macabre persona.
Suitably enough, Theron’s role is central to Guillermo Arriaga’s “The Burning Plain,” for which he serves as writer and first-time feature director. Arriaga cracks her character open by alternating from her past to her present. In her past, events in her life urge her towards a life-changing decision, one that haunts her and, thus, fascinates Arriaga, as did his other tales of human turmoil. (Thankfully, he’s made them as fascinating to us – though many would argue that his collaborator, director Alejandro González Iñárritu, deserves much of the credit, but this film makes us wonder about that, as we’ll see.)
The central image in “The Burning Plain,” which screened at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival/Cinefest, is a flaming mobile home, the desert-blaze motif of the title. It’s no guess that young Mariana (played by Jennifer Lawrence, and grown as Theron, aka Sylvia) is responsible, once we learn that her mother, Gina (a very satisfying Kim Basinger), is having an affair with Nick (the fine Portuguese actor Joaquim de Almeida). Arriaga’s ironic sensibility allows Mariana and Nick’s son, Santiago (J.D. Pardo), to converge for a doom-laden relationship. Its traction-cum-turmoil recalls the pseudo-incestuous affair in Sam Shepard’s electrifying stage drama, “Fool for Love.” Arriaga is similarly concerned with how the past collapses upon the present: in this sense, he borrows more from William Faulkner. Arriaga serves his predecessor well – the desert flame that spins this story to life is like the central image of The Sound and the Fury: one girl in muddy drawers who sets a family toward modernist tragedy – obsession for a suicidal brother; yearning from another, retarded brother; and oppression from a cynical third. “The Burning Plain” doesn’t concern siblings, but a trail of mother-daughter relationships that have fallen as hard as Faulkner’s Compsons.
In the film’s “present” storyline, Theron’s restaurant manager is the foundation on which this Oregon business stands. Her casual affairs, one with a cook (John Corbett, sans the ladykilling charm he had in the series “Sex and the City”), suggest just of touch of disquiet in her person, until we witness her casual habit of self-mutilation during a restaurant break. This complex woman calls for some introspection, so Arriaga steps in as Dr. Freud with an analysis. His cause-and-effect revelation – haunted past creates fucked-up present – plays as intellectually simplistic, and even a little misogynistic. But intellectual verity has never been Arriaga’s strength. His work has been about anguish that manifests on the surface level, possibly why Elvis Mitchell argues Arriaga’s work to be foremost melodramatic, though admittedly a revisionist type. His least sensational script would be “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” a revenge tale about the border patrol that borrows from Samuel Beckett’s comic absurdity. The leading role was made for Tommy Lee Jones’ modern-day man of action – the casting was so perfect that it would have to be the actor’s debut as director.
In “The Burning Plain,” another directorial debut, sensationalism is on order, but it’s buttressed by fear, suffering, and desire – the schizo-blend that makes Arriaga’s scripts so unique. After a Mexican dust cropper has a near fatal crash, he calls upon Mariana to return, to him and his daughter – for a reunion or retribution, we aren’t sure. The young Mariana creates disorder by desiring order and oversteps bounds by doing so.
We can guess as to why Gina needs Nick’s love so badly, as she has had a mastectomy without reconstructive surgery. Viewing their encounters makes us believe that the affair holds far more than vows of holy matrimony ever could. Hence, Mariana’s relationship with Nick’s son feels like fate, almost of ancient Greek proportions – an unavoidable response of a young woman trying to cope with the previous generation’s actions. Fate breeds fatalism in a tale that Arriaga masterfully writes and directs. It’s realized so beautifully and viscerally that – I hate to say it – Iñárritu now seems a little obsolete.
Posted on September 19, 2009 in Reviews by Matthew Sorrento
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