The Burning Plain

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Additional Venice Film Festival reviews

Venice Film Festival, In Competition

Exploring the tangled emotional threads that link, and at times strangle, Mexico and the U.S. through a complex cast of characters matched by an equally complicated storyline, "The Burning Plain" is an ambitious, visually handsome production which fails to ignite. The star power of Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger may attract initial business for the directing bow of Guillermo Arriaga, the screenwriter who accompanied Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to fame on "Amores Perros,"  "Babel" and “"21 Grams" before their artistic break-up. But the two actresses' sensitive performances don’t make the emotional connection to audiences that the story yearns for.  

This is a film that makes viewers work hard to understand what's going on -- so hard, in fact, that there’s little time to get emotionally involved with the characters or their woes. In brief, two parallel stories run side by side: one, shot in rain-soaked coastal Oregon, follows the joyless sex life of Sylvia (Theron), the manager of a sophisticated eatery on a cliff, who is on the run from something in her past; the other, which takes place 12 years earlier in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico, has two families trying to deal with the tragic deaths of Nick, a married Mexican-American man (Joaquim De Almeida) and Gina, a married mother of four (Basinger), when the camper where they are committing adultery explodes from a gas leak.

Particularly traumatized by their gruesome deaths (their charred bodies have to be cut apart) are two of their teenage kids, Nick's son Santiago (J.D. Pardo) and Gina's daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence.) Much against their families' wishes, they become intimate as they try to work through the tragedy.

The connection between the New Mexico story and Sylvia's alienated bed-hopping becomes clear, for those who haven't guessed, in the second part of the film, after another terrible tragedy strikes: a young Mexican-American girl witnesses her father's crop-dusting plane crash in the field in front of their house, and is taken off by dad’s buddy Carlos (José Maria Yazpik) to find other relatives.

It does all make sense in the end, especially since the connecting scenes are underlined in black magic marker to be sure no one misses the point. But by then the film is over, and viewers are left waiting for a little emotional catharsis of their own.

Among Arriaga's strong points is his exceptional feel for placing characters in a landscape that is at once physical and symbolic -- Sylvia’s Wuthering Heights cliff and the endless red sorghum fields of the American Southwest are marvelously expressive. His script likewise has a unique feeling for America’s multi-ethnic core, with its crisscrossing of tensions and attractions.

Hunting for memorable moments, there is the tender relationship between the emotionally and physically scarred Gina and her sensitive lover Nick, with Basinger netting sympathy despite looking over-elegant for the part. Theron, who shares executive producer credit, plays Sylvia as edgy and haunted; sleek as a fashion model in an opening nude scene, she looks the part but lacks the key scene to explode on screen. Standing out of a strong supporting cast is young Jennifer Lawrence in a role that doesn’t go unnoticed.

Production company: 2929 Productions in association with Costa Films. Cast: Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Joaquim De Almeida, John Corbett, Jose Maria Yazpik, J.D. Pardo, Jennifer Lawrence, Jose Gallaro, Brett Cullen, Danny Pino. Director: Guillermo Arriaga. Screenwriter: Guillermo Arriaga. Executive producers: Charlize Theron, Alisa Tager, Ray Angelic, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban, Marc Butan. Producers: Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald. Directors of photography: Robert Elswit, John Toll. Production designer: Dan Leigh. Music: Omar Rodriguez Lopez, Hans Zimmer. Costumes: Cindy Evans. Editor: Craig Wood. Sales Agent: 2929 Intl., Los Angeles. 106 minutes.

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