September 17, 2009

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The Burning Plain (R)
Two women deal with their tension-filled lives and their families in The Burning Plain, a novel-ish drama from Guillermo Arriaga.

Arriaga, the writer-director here, is the writer behind Babel, which I hated; The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which I liked, and 21 Grams, which I have never seen in its entirety because every time I’ve tried to watch it I fall asleep. That mix of intriguing drama and sleep-inducing dragginess continues here.

Our first glimpse of Gina’s (Kim Basinger) story is actually of her death in a trailer fire that also killed Nick (Joaquim de Almeida), the man with whom she was having an affair. Both are married with children, which include Gina’s daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Nick’s son Santiago (J.D. Pardo). These teens gravitate to each other out of sorrow, curiosity and perhaps eventually love.

Meanwhile in the present, we see the story of Sylvia (Charlize Theron), a tightly wound restaurant manager. Whereas Gina filled her loneliness with a romance, Sylvia fills hers with sex — with a married employee (John Corbett) and with one-night-stand-ish men. We also meet Maria (Tessa la), a young girl whose father is hurt in an airplane accident.

Race figures in to the story — Nick and Gina live in a Southwestern border town and Nick is Latino — as do gender and motherhood. Gina’s desperate affair might have something to do with the limited opportunity for self-expression available to this mother of some five or six children. But these social issues are not nearly as big or as engaging as the characters’ stories and how they unfold. More than being a movie about race or about romance or even about Sylvia and Gina, The Burning Plain is a movie about how its story develops. We see the four central female characters — the child Maria, the teenage Mariana, the 30something Sylvia and the 40something Gina — compared and contrasted as their stories are laid out next to each other, folding back to give us a sort-of complete picture by the end. It gives the movie a very literary feel — as though each scene is a chapter laid out in a book. It also makes you wish that, as with a book, you could put it down for a bit to get some coffee, turn on the radio and generally give yourself a few minutes to wake up before plunging back in. I appreciate the quietly told story as much as the next person, but a story this quiet screened in a dark theater also has the potential to lull you to sleep — though I guess your snoring will do the public service of waking up the rest of the sleepy audience.

That said, this is a movie of solid performances. While Charlize Theron has played this mopey sad sack before, Basinger gives plenty of life to her conflicted housewife. And the teenagers do a good job of seeming like real, confused, bratty, heightened-emotion having teens. Get an extra shot of espresso in that coffee you smuggle in to the theaters and The Burning Plain is a calm alternative to the overwrought fall drama season. C+

Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language. Written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga, The Burning Plain is an hour and 51 minutes long and is distributed by Magnolia Pictures. The movie opens in limited release on Friday, Sept. 18, and is available through the Magnolia option via Comcast’s On Demand service