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The Burning Plain is the directorial debut from the celebrated Mexican scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Arriaga, who penned Amores Perros and 21 Grams, fell out with his artistic partner Alejandro González Iñárritu over the authorial rights to Babel.
Inarritu must be kicking himself, because The Burning Plain is Arriaga’s most searching portrayal of the human condition yet.
Arriaga’s work is characterised by multi-stranded and non-linear narratives in which seemingly unconnected characters, disparate happening and separate timeframes weave together to form a cogent whole.
Within this cinematic game of cluedo, he displays an almost unparalleled ability to capture human behaviour at its most frail and damaged. There is always a sense of latent, pernicious conflict-of people struggling against they’re loved ones, their nationalities, their bodies, their pasts, themselves.
The Burning Plain is no different. Charlize Theron, who also produces the film, plays the emotionally withdrawn Sylvia. We first meet her outside the restaurant she owns. Looking out across the sea, she picks up a sharp stone and digs it into her inner-thigh before returning to a motel and trying vainly to find solace in joyless sex with a sports-car driving pursuer.
Sylvia’s plight is aligned with that of Kim Basinger’s character Gina, an overwrought and delicately feminine housewife whose extramarital affair with an earthy, gentle Mexican farmer (played by Joaquim de Almeida) has provided her with a renewed sense of belonging and a reclamation of her sexuality.
Without giving too much way, a terrible mistake culminates in Almeida’s awkward son Santiago beginning a relationship of impossibly youthful passion with Basinger’s emotionally withdrawn daughter Mariana.
It is clear Arriaga’s direction cannot compare to the occasional cinematic innovation and splendor Iñárritu is capable of. As such, he has reigned himself in and shot the film in uncluttered, streamlined fashion, giving his actors space to communicate their character and allowing the audience to navigate their own way through the film.
His ability to draw lines between seemingly unconnected lives has been condensed. In Babel, the three narratives play out across three separate continents. Here, the drama takes place within a comparatively small geographic space. It has, as such, a hermetic and at times claustophobic quality that juxtaposes the wild, vast panorama in which it is set.
Set in the expanse between Mexico and America, Arriaga captures the landscapes beautifully. The windswept, impassive prairies and crouched, snowcapped mountains provides the drama with the weight of classic, elemental Americana.
Some will find the kaleidoscope style of this story intrusive, while others may find some moments too cliched for comfort and others too obtuse and self-consciously ambiguous. For me, it judged it perfectly, and when the film finally clicked together, the moment of realisation (the reveal) is accompanied by such a visceral sense of rawness it made me grip the arms of the cinema seat.
Arriaga has conjured an intelligent, erotic and mysterious melodrama with moments of true and pure cinematic power, and has established himself as one of the most important filmmakers of his generation.