Charlize Theron: Oscar Winner. Kim Basinger: Oscar Winner. Guillermo Arriaga: Golden Globe Winner and Oscar Nominee. Robert Elswit: Oscar Winner. John Toll: Double Oscar Winner. It is the collaborative effort of these great talents and more, that bring emotion, depth, intrigue and life to Guillermo Arriaga’s latest story of love and redemption. Probably best known as the Oscar nominated screenwriter of “Babel”, “21 Grams” and “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”, Arriaga now steps behind the camera to direct THE BURNING PLAIN, which I believe, is his most powerfully heartfelt and dramatic work to date.
Sylvia is an interesting woman. Strong, efficient and personable in her duties as a high end restaurant manager, her personal life is anything but. Somber, brooding, disconnected, disinterested and emotionless, the grey Oregon seacoast where she lives and works seems to mimic Sylvia’s emotions. As the thunderous waves crash into the rocks below the restaurant, so do thunderous waves of hidden emotion swell within the rock solid veneer of Sylvia. Sleeping with any man that asks and trying to sleep with any man she sees, Sylvia’s only hint of emotion is through self-inflicted mutilation of cutting.
Meanwhile, in the beauteous New Mexican desert, Robert and Gina seem to have it all. A happy home. A loving family. A good life. But do they? Oblivious to all but for her teenaged daughter Mariana, Gina is lifeless and emotionless. She is unhappy, insecure and afraid, merely going through the daily motions. A cancer survivor following a mastectomy, Gina now doubts her worth, believing herself scarred for life. But that was before meeting Nick. A rugged, handsome, makes you go-weak-in-the-knees Mexican immigrant, something in Gina clicked on when she met Nick and it is only through their passionate affair and torrid sex that she feels alive, loved and happy.
But, Gina’s happiness is short lived when a trailer explosion takes both her life and Nick’s, leaving their families to grieve and Mariana, and Nick’s son, Santiago, to discover the connection between their two families and why.
Maria is a beautiful, determined and serious little girl. Her father is the love of her life and she, his. A crop duster, they dream of adventures together, of soaring through the clouds like the birds; free and unfettered. But all that changes when his plane crashes and he is critically injured, forcing Maria to travel to the United States with their best friend Carlos for help from a most unexpected source.
Turning our focus to acting, let’s start with Jennifer Lawrence whom Arriaga knew on day one of casting that this was his Mariana. “I had not a single doubt.” This is the actress of this generation to be on the lookout for. She is explosive. As Lawrence did with the character of Agnes in Lori Petty’s “The Poker House”, Lawrence’s first starring film role, here as Mariana she is strong and strong willed, again caring for her siblings, for the most part running a household, being responsible, loving her mother but knowing mom has serious issues, and have an internal fortitude and determination that dominates the screen. Lawrence has an indelible screen presence with an intensity that is riveting. As Mariana, she is again on the cusp of adult material but still retains a childlike naivete that is so endearing. She is stellar.
Joaquim de Almeida has been one of my faves since I first saw him in “Clear and Present Danger.” Handsome. Sexy, Suave. Dark and mysterious. As Nick, he is no different. Yet here, he brings a sense of comfort and ease to the character and to the film. There is no question in my mind why the character of Gina, would hook up with him. Actually, no question in my mind why any woman would have an affair with him. (Although a deficiency in the script is that we never find out HOW these two people from two different worlds did hook up.)
I have to say that Kim Basinger improves with age. She has fallen comfortably into roles of motherhood and wears them well, bringing physical and emotional nuances that make or break the character. Here, she makes the character of Gina with this constant nervousness, wringing of the hands and fidgeting, that but for Mariana, her husband and family are oblivious to. One look at Basinger’s face throughout the film screamed “guilty” of something but no one picked up on it, which only adds to the desperation of the character who ends up in another man’s arms because of being overlooked and neglected by the whole family. It felt as if she wasn’t even a part of the family; more of a shadow or ghost. Beautiful performance.
And then we have Charlize Theron’s Sylvia, a loner with a lot of psychological issues going on. Theron’s Sylvia walked tall, held her shoulders back, walked with pride and confidence but then on the turn of a dime, could cry and beg a man to love her. When she starts with the self-inflicting of cuts with a rock, I immediately began thinking of Maria Bello in “Downloading Nancy”, who I kept envisioning as being interchangeable with Theron in this role of Sylvia; that is until all the pieces of the puzzle came together when that thunderous emotion within the character exploded on screen. Could we find Theron in Oscar contention this year for this role? Quite possibly. And as for future work with Arriaga? According to Arriaga, “Martin Scorsese has Leonardo DiCaprio. I would like to have Charlize Theron.”
Great supporting additions to the cast are Robin Tunney, Brett Cullen and John Corbett (who is really a throw away character and a waste of his talent and good looks).
Written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga, there is an elegant intricacy of the interweaving of the three storylines, something that was retained from writing to filming. Using solitude and the elements of nature as tools to propel the story, Arriaga gives the complexities of life a simplicity in the grand scheme of cosmos. To every thing there is a season. Although there are several instances that seem incomplete or questionable within the story, periods of quiet observation give way to appreciation of symbolism which is replete within the film. Drawing on his own life and that of those around him, characters are named for his family members (Gina is named for his wife, Maria and Mariana for daughters and Santiago for his son) and certain traits are infused in his characters. A key dynamic in this story is the mother-daughter/father-son relationships which are so natural, such effortless beauty, bearing truths not often seen. A cultural professor who has been teaching for many years, Arriaga has “always told [my] students, never try to be profound. And that’s how I write. I just wanted to tell the story. I just let the story go. Humans, we are very fragile species. We need love. We need interaction. We need the other person [in order] to be ourselves. That’s what I want to portray in this movie. How we must depend on the other to be who we are. Our identity is greater than the people that surround us.”
Stepping behind the camera for the first time, the very first day of shooting on set Arriaga “was amazed that I wasn’t nervous. I was confused the first 15 minutes. I’ve never worked with anyone [on this film ] before except Philip Hardage, the 1st AD who worked with us in the ‘Three Burials.’ But that’s it. After 15 minutes. That was it. I was fine. Having Bob [Elswit] and the producers I have, my 1st Ad, my script supervisor, we very quickly have a family. I felt protected. And something I did from the very beginning is I warned that they will be punished if they say this is my film. We always refer to this as out film and I still refer to it as our film. I think it’s a work of all of us and I was very happy to work with this team.”
Only having to rewrite one scene during filming, Arriaga was quick on his feet and adapted to the rigors of directing. In one instance, being short on time, Arriaga was warned that “This is the longest scene. So there was a moment when I sat down and said I’m going to cut it. So I cut filming then. And it worked. But that’s the pressure of the time that pushed me to make decisions.”
If you are looking for excellence in a film, look no further than the cinematography of Robert Elswit who lensed and lit the New Mexico segments, and John Toll, whom Elswit called in to finish the film for the Portland segments when he was called to another project. So influential to the points of view within the story, their work is STUNNING. The color and lighting differentials between the Southwest segments and the Northwest are not only distinctive, but celebratory in their own rights and critical to the individual stories. While Mariana and Santiago are teens, there is sun, there is light, there is joy for them and their families (even after the parental deaths). There is a purity and beauty in those desert scenes that Elswit captures exquisitely; a clarity of seeing miles and miles, much like seeing into the future. Then there’s the contrast of Oregon with the grey, overcast, clouded and obscure as is reflected in Toll’s work. Both of these men deserve Oscar recognition for cinematography for THE BURNING PLAIN, which is beauteous to watch and, in this case, is actually as a much a character in the film as each of the actors.
Long wanting to work with Elswit, Arriaga believes him to be “one of the great masters in cinema.” What Arriaga found “amazing” about Elswit is that at their first meeting “he never ever mentioned cameras, lenses. He wanted to talk about the story.” Unfortunately, Elswit had to go film another project midway through shooting but assured Arriaga, “Don’t worry. John Toll is coming. So, I have two of the greatest DPs of all time.”
According to Arriaga, “This film is based on the four elements. Each one of the three has to do with one of the elements. We wanted to respect that feeling that the landscape was going to be a character in the film. So, we would never do a camera that would obstruct the story because we would like the human beings to be the main reason of the frame. That’s what guided us.”
Further complimenting the work of Elswit and Roll Toll is Craig Wood’s editing. Critical to this story, Wood melds worlds together with a fluidity and ease.
In addition to acting, Theron has successfully made the transition into the role of executive producer with this, her second production. In contrast to many executive producers who are more titular, Theron is hands on from start to finish and it shows in the final product. “At the end of the day I don’t really compartmentalize the job. From the first day I walked onto a set, there has always been a fascination that I have had with making a film. There is something about that circus life that I really love. And there’s a also a business side of me that is really fascinated how this industry really functions and survives as a business. And how you can, as efficiently as possible, make a film. Once I’m on set, I’ll make a sandwich [if needed]. I don’t care. That’s kind of the environment that filmmaking needs to be, for me, anyway. Everybody’s in the same boat and at the end of the day you’re just trying to do what you need to do or can do to make the best film that you possibly can. And then knock on wood.” Echoing Theron’s sentiments are Arriaga and Lawrence who both continually refer to THE BURNING PLAIN as “our film” and a “collaboration.” The camaraderie and sense of community and unity with this team is inspiring.
A calculated intensity. High polish. Exquisite cinematography. An interesting story with an extremely well done interlacing of “chapters” and characters. I look forward to seeing what Arriaga does in the future. He is a director to watch in the coming years.
For now, watch Guillermo Arriaga weave his magic with THE BURNING PLAIN remembering “no matter how far you go into the abyss, there is always hope.”
Sylvia – Charlize Theron
Mariana – Jennifer Lawrence
Gina – Kim Basinger
Nick – Joaquim de Almeida
Robert – Brett Cullen
Santiago – JD Pardo
Written and Directed by Guillermo Arriaga.