MOVIE REVIEW Equal Parts Melancholy and Hope

Arriaga’s Latest Is a Tense Character Drama

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Jennifer Lawrence and J.D. Padro in The Burning Plain.
courtesy of magnolia pictures

The Burning Plain

Written and Directed by Guillermo Arriaga

Starring Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lawrence, and Kim Basinger

Rated R

Now Playing

Before the screening of The Burning Plain, one of the film critics near me explained that he had been in the hospital for the last few weeks due to a bike accident. Still tending injuries of a couple broken ribs, he joked that he was “glad that today’s movie is not a comedy.” Indeed, The Burning Plain is perhaps as far as possible from comedy.

Guillermo Arriaga, the director and screenwriter responsible for Babel, utilizes many of the same narrative tactics used in the earlier work. In his latest, the mystery-inflected drama unfolds through four seemingly disconnected stories. Arriaga’s approach is similar to examining an object under a focused microscope, only gleaning snapshots before gradually retracting and revealing the image as a whole. The film is intricately woven together as it closes, lingering in one’s mind as one pieces everything together in hindsight.

The four strands each begin already tense with potential conflicts: in the opening scene we aren’t comforted by a film that’s slowly setting itself up, but are launched immediately into the characters’ stories and moods. We begin with Sylvia (Charlize Theron), a sex-crazed, depressed individual concealed as a professional restaurant manager. Elsewhere, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Santiago (J.D. Pardo) are two teenagers from different worlds drawn together by the death of their parents. A tragedy disrupts the life of a young girl who has lived her whole life with her cropduster father and his best friend. The last vignette belongs to passionate and tumultuous forbidden love in an abandoned trailer.

Whether due to the muted cinematography or the despair and hopelessness of the situations, the film is emotionally taxing. Although certain parts are predictable, a narrative twist does not fail to leave viewers both aghast and pleasantly surprised. It is, however, often difficult to relate to the film, since some of the circumstances are impossibly far-fetched.

Ultimately, it is the rawness of the characters’ emotions that pull the film together. While its predicaments may not be conventional, the film is able to engage the audience successfully, with equal parts melancholy and hope permeating the viewer’s mood and mind even after the credits roll.