After garnering some well-deserved attention for his script of 'Amores Perros', Guillermo Arriaga followed-up his critical success with three more equally impressive stories about the invisible threads that bind strangers together: '21 Grams', 'The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada', and 'Babel.' For 'The Burning Plain', he not only pens the screenplay, but also directs this complex tale of damaged women living in turmoil, making this his feature-length debut. And much like his previous works, the entire film is told in non-linear fashion, effortlessly moving through time and space until we arrive at the inevitable conclusion, where destinies converge. Unlike those same predecessors, however, the clever design is not nearly as effective or emotionally resonating as Arriaga wants it to be.
From the opening shots of a trailer engulfed in flames, there is a sense of despair and misery, which is made more apparent once we meet beautiful Sylvia (Charlize Theron). Living in Portland, she is the manager of a high-end restaurant, with a suicidal temperament and a promiscuous love life. When Carlos (José María Yazpik) shows up, she's forced to confront her mysterious past. In a small New Mexico town near the border, Gina (Kim Basinger) is a wife and mother of four children with a secret of her own. Feeling unsatisfied in her marriage, she seeks fulfillment in a passionate love affair with a married man. Meanwhile, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) finds comfort in a sexually-charged relationship with the son of her deceased mother's lover.
If for nothing else, Arriaga is a terrific storyteller, weaving intricate, multipart plotlines that come together in the end with fluid and satisfying ease. He knows his characters intimately and develops them through the kind of limited, insightful dialogue so few seem to know how to write anymore. His scripts are highly dependent on actors to simply emanate the necessary emotions through body language. And the cast of 'The Burning Plain' does a marvelous job in providing exactly that. While Theron gives a top-notch performance as a woman pained by her traumatic past, Basinger is compelling as a wife desperately seeking to rid herself of self-hatred and shame. Jennifer Lawrence, is also a standout.
The audience is made aware of everything early on, and it's not difficult to figure out how all three women are connected by the end of the first act. 'The Burning Plain' is not about the inevitable, shocking revelation, it's about redemption and emancipation from the past that haunts and preoccupies the present. Unfortunately, the film is not as thought-provoking and profound as it hopes to be. There is something noticeably lacking.
It could be Arriaga's inexperience as a first-time director, falling prey to ineffectual melodrama in the concluding hospital scenes. Or, it could be that audiences are now jaded by so many non-linear story structures that the ends don't always justify the means anymore. But 'The Burning Plain' is definitely missing something. The script is tightly written and sumptuously displayed, thanks to the collaborative photography of Robert Elswit and John Toll, but when it comes to those final moments, there's just something missing that fails to deliver the emotional impact the film worked so hard to attain. Maybe someday, even the film will be redeemed by a following which overlooks any inherent shortcomings.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Magnolia Home Entertainment brings 'The Burning Plain' on a Region Free BD25 Blu-ray disc and packaged in the standard blue keepcase. The cover art is a simple depiction of Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger with the film's title in bold separating the two women. After a series of skippable trailers, including some for 'Bronson', 'Serious Moonlight' and 'Red Cliff', viewers are taken to a straightforward and basic table of menu options.
'The Burning Plain' debuts with a very nice 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.40:1), reproducing the film's deliberate style with a pleasantly detailed image. While a thin layer of film grain is maintained throughout, contrast fluctuates depending on the setting and climate surrounding the two main characters. When we're with Sylvia in Portland, levels are severely restrained to reflect her overcast and gloomy environment. But in scenes with Gina in the Southwest, things become slightly hotter to capture the warm desert conditions. The color palette is, naturally, affected by the intentional photography; however, primaries are full-bodied and bright with strong variance in secondary hues.
Blacks are attractive and accurately rendered, while shadow delineation allows for plenty of visible background info to be exposed. Flesh tones appear warm, healthy, and appropriate to each character's surroundings. Although not one of the better presentations from a newer release, fine object and textural details are still well-defined and stable. With only a few scattered soft spots, Arriaga's film makes a good-looking debut in high definition.
Magnolia also includes a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack for the film, and it's on par with the picture quality. It's a dialogue-driven design, so everything is pretty much centered around the front soundstage, which isn't all that bad. It's actually better than initially expected, as the lossless mix delivers clean and well-balanced channel separation with precise and intelligible vocals in the middle. Warm and inviting imaging gives the track an expansive presence, exhibiting some persuasive acoustics, sharp dynamics, and strong low-frequency bass, particularly during the trailer explosion. There's not much going on in the rear speakers, but it comes with plenty of clarity and detail in the front, where a majority of the ambiance is to be found. In the end, the track is attractive and adequate for a drama.
For this Blu-ray edition of Arriaga's emotional drama, the supplemental package is the same as its day-and-date DVD counterpart. Unfortunately, that's not saying much, as the collection falls on the weaker side of things and proves underwhelming.
'The Burning Plain' features the directorial debut of Guillermo Arriaga, and he does a fine enough job, more so on the script than behind the camera, in this multipart narrative of damaged women living in turmoil and desperation. Unfortunately, the film doesn't deliver the same emotional impact as his previous work, but it does come with very compelling performances and is beautifully photographed. The Blu-ray edition of the drama arrives with a nice audio/video presentation, but a generally lacking package of bonus material. Fans will be happy with the purchase while others will want to give it a rent first before deciding.