MCN Blogs
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

AFI Dallas: The Burning Plain

Last night at AFI Dallas we caught the Centerpiece screening of Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain, starring Charlize Theron. I first saw this film at Toronto, where I was a little lukewarm on the pacing of film, but liked the structure of the plot overall and the performances. I wrote back then that I wanted to see the film a second time, and this is the first chance I’ve had to catch it.
While I don’t believe the film has undergone any editing changes since I saw it last September, I did like it considerably more this time around, though I’m not sure if that’s because I was overly tired and festival-grumpy the first time I saw it, or because I already knew what was going to happen and was therefore able to focus more on the subtleties of the writing and the performances. Oh, and the cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton), who shot the Mexico sequences, and John Toll (Gone Baby Gone, Vanilla Sky) who shot in Portland, is completely stunning.
I thought the performances were strong the first time I saw The Burning Plain and now, after seeing it a second time, I’m even more impressed by both Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger. Theron never overplays her part; her eyes are haunted, vacant; her face is a carefully constructed blank slate, but there’s so much constrained emotion playing under the surface in every scene. She’s really a remarkable talent, and this is exactly the kind of role she shines in. As for Basinger, this is her best performance in years; she’s rock solid as the housewife whose affair spins the events of the story.
The storyline revolves around a convoluted plot structure in which Arriaga reveals only bits and pieces at a time before finally tying it all together in the third act. The first time I saw this film, it took me awhile to figure out how it all fit together, but on a second viewing it was more obvious to me early on where the reveals were. I’m sure there are plenty of people who figured things out much sooner than I did on a first viewing, but hey, it was Toronto, I was tired, and it truly did take me a while to figure out where the whole thing was going.
Arriaga is a brilliant writer, one of the best, and this is a solid directorial effort with some minor flaws here and there that don’t, overall, detract from the power of the film. Magnolia will release the film in September.

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One Response to “AFI Dallas: The Burning Plain”

  1. bunnybeth says:

    This one is on my list to see at the movies (matinee, of course).

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon