The Burning Plain does everything wrong along the way.
Sylvia (Theron), a successful restaurant manager, spends her nights fucking men indiscriminately and uses her breaks to cut herself until she bleeds. She seems to have reached the end of the line. Through very confusing flashbacks in which Lawrence plays the young Sylvia, her secret is revealed – a family upheaval that ended with the death of Sylvia’s mother (Basinger) and her lover. In the end, all it takes for Sylvia to make peace with this past is a meeting with her daughter, whom she’d abandoned a couple of days after she was born.
That makes two classic Hollywood clichés in one art-house film – “you can do anything for a loved one” and “everything can be explained through your biography.”
The Burning Plain has problems. One is that Theron, Lawrence and Basinger seem to have been cast on the merit of being blond and willing to show some skin. They never develop a convincing mother-daughter dynamic. Another problem is the portrayal of the Mexican male as a version of the noble savage who shows the white woman what true sensuality really means.
But the worst problem is that the dialogue desperately needed a native speaker – or someone with a better ear for the language than director Arriaga – to give each line an extra take or two to develop into something real people would actually say. Or at least someone to tell the actors whether it’s supposed to be artful Lynch or gritty Cronenberg. The way it is, the whole film is just unsuccessfully pretentious.
THE BURNING PLAIN | Directed by Guillermo Arriaga (USA, Argentina 2008) with Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence. Opens May 26