" The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the orient expresses it, life is not important. "
— General William Westmoreland, Hearts and Minds

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Screenwriter Guillerm Arriaga, known for his scripts made of interwoven stories ( Amores Perros, Babel), tries his hand at directing. He also wrote The Burning Plain, so you won’t be surprised to learn that the movie tells several interwoven stories.

Four Threads

Charlize Theron doesn't save the film
Charlize Theron doesn’t save the film

The Burning Plain is about mothers and daughters. It’s a little bit like another indie film I saw at the same time, Trucker, in that both are films about mothers who feel guilty for keeping a separate self not defined by their children.

In one of The Burning Plain ’s threads, Gina (Kim Basinger) is having an affair. Her oldest child senses that something is going on that isn’t supposed to be happening. Arriaga distributes the friction evenly between mother and child. Gina resents the curiosity. She wants an hour a week away from her family. But how can her child behave any differently? When you are young, you expect your parents to be rock-solid. If mom is behaving strangely, then it’s only natural to be curious and hurt.

In the other thread, Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is having as many affairs as she wants, yet the sex still doesn’t cure the ennui, and neither does her success at the restaurant business — her best customers are well-connected, excellent-tipping politicians. A man seems to be stalking her, though she doesn’t even know it.

Two subthreads focus on girls. In one, a girl in Mexico witnesses her father’s crop duster crash into a field. In another, a girl tries to learn more about her mother after her death.


I’ve been careful not to tell you how the threads relate. There’s a point where the stories come together, but it’s not a sudden, brilliant spark; it’s a slow realization, and it really isn’t very surprising or insightful. And the revelation comes too early in the film; after you make the connection, the story becomes predictable. Arriaga might have been better off abandoning the storytelling gimmick of parallel threads. In any case, The Burning Plain doesn’t work nearly as well as Amores Perros or Babel.

The Burning Plain does get off to a strong start. I was intrigued for the first 30 minutes, and I was interested in the characters for the next 30. My favorite character is probably Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), the girl who wants to learn about her dead mother. She’s got a bold, almost self-destructive streak. You want her to tone it down and not get hurt, but at least she’s not just sitting down and shutting up.

Basinger is very good as the woman torn between her lover and her family. She really conveys the frustration at being trapped by her family that a lot of mothers must feel. As for Theron, she can do no wrong in my book, but here she doesn’t get to do much more than brood; it’s not her best role.

The Burning Plain runs less than two hours, but it feels long. Maybe it goes back to Arriaga’s reveal happening too soon. Once I saw where the movie was going, I was ready to get there. A very good cast and a solid sense of place (one story happens in the deserts of New Mexico, the other in the gray drizzle of Oregon) help. But if this is the result of splitting his time between writing and directing, then perhaps the focus should stay on the writing.