“I just watched Guillermo Arriaga‘s The Burning Plain with Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger on VOD last night,” entertainment journalist Lewis Beale wrote this morning. “I was surprised it had suddenly popped up on my local cable system, so I went to the IMDB and found it had gone the festival route (Venice, Toronto, Seattle), and that the official TV premiere release date was 8.21.09.
“Okay, it’s not that great a film. Another one of those circuitous, three-stories-that-come-together-eventually plotlines that Arriaga seems obsessed with, except in this case a linear approach would definitely have been more effective. But sheesh…a film with two female Oscar winners doesn’t even get to play the IFC Center or whatever? What happened here? Any interest in looking into this?”
But I didn’t have to “look into it.” I saw The Burning Plain at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, and it was clear to everyone that while it was a mildly intriguing heavy-cat drama in some respects (Theron’s promiscuous restaurant hostess tries and fails to suppress teenaged traumatic memories of having unwittingly caused her mother’s death), it just wasn’t laser-beamed or emotionally affecting enough to warrant impassioned reviews or any kind of limited-hang-out awards campaign.
There’s something a little too schematic and bluntly telegraphed about Theron’s past coming back and insisting that she face up to things. We know where stories of this sort are going and that it’s all going to come out in the wash, and so a half-hour into it you’re muttering to yourself, “Okay, all right, what else can you show me?” But there’s nothing else. The story is the story. And you have to ride it out.
Plus there’s a sense in watching it that the spaghetti-narrative trick that Arriaga used with collaborator Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu in Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel has been overworked and is maybe running out of steam. The Burning Plain performances (particularly by Theron, Kim Basinger and Joaquim de Almeida) are very good, and I don’t see any way to fault it craft-wise but there’s not just enough oomph and pizazz to make it a must-see drama.
In short The Burning Plain — a not-bad, half-decent film in some ways — fell between the cracks esteem-wise, and so the Magnolia guys took a hard look, got out the calculator and figured it would make sense to do a VOD and a limited theatrical thing around the same period. (Some kind of limited theatrical opening is set for 9.18.09.) I wish I could have felt more positively about it. It’s far from wretched; it works in some respects. Everyone involved was clearly trying to make something solid and truthful and earnest.