The Burning Plain – DVD Review

One of the beautiful things about cinema in the 21st century is that there’s been diversity in the backgrounds of directors making movies. Going all over the spectrum, talented film-makers from all over are able to make movies that get seen by people all over the globe. Instead of having to search out foreign directors at niche stores, a writer/director with the pedigree of Guillermo Arriaga can make his debut on the backs of such Latin luminaries as Guillermo del Toro and is able to penetrate the Hollywood system.

The writer behind Babel, amongst others, Arriaga’s debut behind the camera isn’t nearly as successful as that film, 21 Grams or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada due to it’s awkward structure. And trying to figure it out requires repeated viewings when the film isn’t compelling enough in its current structure to warrant more then a cursory glance.

The Burning Plain is the tale of a mother and daughter. Gina (Kim Basinger) is in love with a man who isn’t her husband. Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is haunted by a past, trying to fulfill herself with an endless series of meaningless flings. Separated by several decades of time, the film jumps back and forth between the two as they try to find some meaning in their lives.

The film’s problem is in this time jumping, never staying long enough to develop either main character into something more meaningful. Both women give strong performances, as they do hold Academy Awards for work in the past, but Arriaga doesn’t let the film grow over time. Instead, splitting it up as a sort of “hyperlink” film (as dubbed by Roger Ebert) ala Babel, Arriaga is never able to find a good tone for both halves of the story. Presented linearly the film’s finale would have tremendous impact if all the events of the film had led to that point. This is a film that really ought to be carried by Sylvia, flashing back to Gina to flesh the back-story about more, and yet Arriaga wants both stories to have equal weight. It takes away from both stories by trying to make it about both women, instead of it being a journey by one.

What Arriaga gets correct is how he lensed the film. Using wonderful imagery, he’s surrounded in his directorial debut by talented professionals behind the camera who debut some beautiful scenery. This is a film with so many great visuals, and great camera movements, that it’s easy to get sucked into. While the film doesn’t provide much in terms of scenery, there are plenty of great camera movements and visuals to keep it interesting. There just isn’t enough to make The Burning Plain worthwhile.

Presented in a Dolby Digital surround sound with a widescreen format, the film looks wonderfully. Made for $20 million, and never given a wide release, the transfer makes full use of the format. Without a lot of big score pieces, but plenty of majestic shots, the film looks tremendous.

The Making of The Burning Plain is a making of featurette spanning quite some time as Arriaga takes us through every aspect of making the film. Not holding back in any aspect, Arriaga adds his own commentary throughout as he details everything that went into making the film. It’s remarkably fascinating and gives quite some insight into the film-making process.

The Music of The Burning Plain follows the making of featurette by having Arriaga discussing the film’s music with the film’s editor and the music composer.

HDNet’s A Look at The Burning Plain is a quick, cursory look at the film.

Never given a wide release, this is a film that never really deserved it. With a handful of strong performances, it’s proof that Guillermo Arriaga has some talent behind the camera (and not just as a writer) but perhaps a better adherence to story-telling would be more appropriate.


Magnolia Entertainment Presents The Burning Plain. Written and Directed by Guillermo Arriaga. Starring Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Joaquim de Almeida. Running time: 107 minutes. Not Rated. Released on DVD: January 26th, 2010. Available at Amazon.com.

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