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At the heart of The Burning Plain is a visual meditation on the difference between the harm caused by children and the harm that adults inflict, and on the difference between the way children and adults experience guilt. We're not told very much about these matters, but we're shown a great deal. It ought to go without saying that The Burning Plain is also a testament to the expressive paramountcy of the human face.
The adult in the case is played by Kim Basinger, giving what struck me as the best performance of her life. Gina is the wife of a long-distance trucker and a mother of four who has found a lover who makes her "so happy" (Joaquim de Almeida). But the infidelity makes her feel terrible. She hates lying, and is not very good at it. The prospect of breaking up her family leads her to break off the affair, but of course it's no use, because Nick does indeed make her happy. We happen to know that Gina is doomed, but Ms Basinger shows us that Gina is doomed even before she is doomed.
The child is played by two actresses: Jennifer Lawrence is the girl, Mariana, who does something terrible, and Charlize Theron is the the young woman she becomes, under a different name, a decade or more later, cutting herself with numbed grief. When the terrible thing happens, taking Mariana by horrified surprise, we see that there is something worse than causing damage intentionally, at least in our world of elevated personal responsibility, and that is causing damage irresponsibly. Until the awful moment, Ms Lawrence shows us the skeptical, confident, and mildly vengeful face of a bright but detached high school student, sure enough that her mother is doing something wrong to track her down doing it, and capable of overcoming her shock and disgust with the cocky awareness of being somebody in the know. Then Mariana has a forbidden romance of her own, but, unlike her mother, she doesn't know what she is doing, and her face registers no compunction. This ignorance leads to a second terrible thing, even if, in her confusion, Mariana believes that it is a good thing.
The difference between the child and the adult is that the adult sins for love, while the child sins for knowledge — and in ignorance. As I say, the film is a meditation on the subject, not a treatise. Gina and Mariana are fully-realized human beings, not types, and we are not to compare, for evaluative purposes, their actions. Neither is better or worse than the other. They are simply situated at very different stages in life when their lives are upended when Gina finds happiness with Nick.
Whatever his artistic intentions, Mr Arriaga's way with narrative keeps us paying close attention to his three leading ladies, for clues as to where we are in the story, which has been broken into three time frames and then served up in random-seeming slices. We sense that Mariana and Sylvia (Ms Theron) are the same woman long before Sylvia acknowledges this. If we see Mariana together with her new boyfriend, Santiago (J D Pardo), then we know that the first terrible thing — seen in the opening frame of the film — has already occurred; Gina's presence signifies that it has not. Some viewers are certain to find the film's storytelling tedious, but I found it not only gripping but genuinely dramatic, in that I learned things only after I had been prepared to learn them. It's fair to say that a good deal of what happens in The Burning Plain is not "usual," but it is to Mr Arriaga's credit that almost everything that happens is entirely plausible. Thinking about the film afterward, I was reminded of the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction. That's very true, which is of course why we have fiction. It is bracing to see how much strange truth, much of it on the level of small detail, that Mr Arriaga has packed into his film.
Even more remarkable: on the evidence of this film, I should say that there is no reason to doubt that nineteen year-old Jennifer Lawrence will attain a stardom to equal her costars'. (September 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press