The Burning Plain

 (2008 Italy, 2009 elsewhere)

by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The script for the Burning Plain was written and directed by the same guy who wrote 21 Grams, Babel, Amores Perros, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

If you are familiar with those films, you probably already know whether you want to see this one. People love his work or hate it. His scripts are meticulously crafted in the same manner as Atom Egoyan's, with several stories spinning off from a central tragic event, all of which eventually come back to form a single narrative. Unlike chronological narratives, which create dramatic tension and audience involvement from events per se, Arriaga's scripts involve the viewer in the relationship between events. He may reveal the film's central event right at the beginning of the film, or he may place it somewhere in the middle, but the event itself is never the reason why we want to watch. That is the structure used by Arriaga (and Egoyan) to force us to concentrate on the characters' motivations, and their relationship to one another, rather than on the things that happen to them.

After watching one of his best films, you'll be amazed to find out that less than nothing happened, and yet you never lost interest. By "less than nothing,"  I am referring to his reversal of the usual screenwriting process, in which mundane action builds up to a point where something significant happens, at which point the film either ends or shifts our interest from "What will happen?" to  "How will people be affected?" In Arriaga's scripts, the significant thing happens, then builds down to humdrum action, and we are interested in how the characters could have gotten to that climactic point in the first place. Only later, after some of the secrets have been revealed, do we get an interest in how the event may have affected them after it occurred. That is Arriaga's skill, and he is brilliant at it.

In this case, the central incident is an explosion in the desert. Two lovers cheat on their respective spouses in an old trailer which seems to be marooned in the middle of nowhere. A gas leak causes the trailer to explode, killing the lovers instantly, their bodies fused together. Four stories spin off from this event. One story line pictures the lives of the lovers before the event. Another relates a romance which later develops between the daughter of the cheating wife and the son of the cheating husband. A third, at first seemingly unrelated, is about an unhappy woman who uses casual sex as a form of self-punishment. The final story, which also seems irrelevant when it begins, is about a Mexican-American daughter and her beloved dad, who is a crop-dusting pilot. Although character development is the film's raison d'etre, there is an element of mystery which involves us. How do these characters fit together? Are all the events taking place at the same time? Do these stories involve different characters, or the same characters at different ages? What do those two ostensibly unrelated plot threads have to do with the explosion? Was the death of the lovers an accident? All of these questions are answered slowly and adroitly.

I mentioned at the outset that people either love Arriaga's films or hate them. I have mixed feelings about his work. While his exposition is brilliant, his weltanschauung is far too bleak to present anything resembling real life in multiple dimensions. His characters are wounded, bitter, and self-loathing caricatures. Their lives are filled with abandonment, murder, infidelity, and despair. These are the kind of people who think Leonard Cohen writes great drinking songs. In fact, the terminally melancholy Cohen would probably find these characters too depressing. I love some of Arriaga's scripts, dislike others. That hinges on whether he can control his excesses: pretension, artiness, and melodrama. He did so here. I think this is his subtlest work. Shockingly enough, he even passes up on a chance to kill off a major character and ... wait for it ... he actually has some Americans who are not racists! Who could have dreamed? OK, maybe there aren't any scenes that could be scored with the Turtles' "Happy Together" instead of a Gregorian funeral dirge, but you have to understand how hard it is for him to make this kind of progress. Those in the fine arts tend to think that the greater the despair, the greater the art, and they distribute awards and praise accordingly. They are more likely to give Oscars to a lame holocaust movie than a brilliant comedy. Given the positive reinforcement from peers, some authors get addicted to writing about despair, and that addiction clouds everything in their lives, just as if it were heroin. And it's just as hard to kick.

Arriaga is in a very early stage of his 12 steps to get that monkey off his back. But at least he's making progress.

Awaiting DVD info


  Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)

Still awaiting major reviews.






7.1 IMDB summary (of 10)






As I write this, it has only been released in Italy, for reasons unclear to me.


  • Charlize Theron shows everything except pubes - and does so almost immediately after the opening credits.






Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


I agree with the IMDb rating. It is a good movie, arguably excellent.