Charlize Theron is a rare Hollywood actress who has carved out a reputation for fearlessness and sheer guts. A former ballet dancer from South Africa, she has avoided roles that solely bank on her chiseled, amazingly statuesque beauty and instead gone far, far out on limbs where very few blonde bombshell actresses ever dare to venture (see “Monster” and you will forever be rid of the cliche about blondes lacking brains).
Like a tall, shimmering glass of vodka, Theron gives the impression of ruthless, precise iciness. But on-screen, her presence exudes moisture and an exotic, discomforting heat. In “The Burning Plain” (released in Japan as “Ano Hi, Yokubou no Daichide”), she unleashes her brutal power full force — as executive producer and centerpiece this is Theron’s project and she pulls the story along with ferocious energy, which is something writer/director Guillermo Arriaga seems to lack.
Arriaga had worked chiefly as writer for Mexican auteur Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and established a brilliant, allegorical style defined by a splintered chronological sequence (“21 Grams” and “Babel” leap to mind). “The Burning Plain” marks Arriaga’s directorial debut and as such, is probably a cause for celebration. Unfortunately, he offers nothing new here, repeating the same storytelling formula bound by certain filmmaking flourishes Inarritu has shown the world many times before. Arriaga’s technique — on loan as it may be — mesmerizes, but its stability and predictability belies his original intentions: “The Burning Plain” sets out to be a wild and feverishly chaotic story, but in the end, remains staid, curiously in deference to its own boundaries.
The much needed jarring note is provided by Theron. The lens captures her in close-ups that reveal old emotional scars and current, constant pain. She seems to swing from various degrees of agony and refuses to feel much else. (One remarkable scene shows her crouched on a rock on a gray, desolate beach — she lifts the hem of her dress and digs a pocket knife into her thigh.)
Theron is best when playing women who are driven, not in the pursuit of conventional happiness, but by a need to realize their sense of existence. Or in this case, a sense of redemption, however brief or transitory.
Theron plays Sylvia, a restaurant proprietor working in a posh Portland venue. Sylvia knows good food and wine, but she herself lives frugally in a tiny downtown apartment and relies on a girlfriend (Robin Tunney) to drive her to work each morning. Being careless probably has a lot to do with Sylvia’s evening lifestyle: The guy who happens to offer a ride home is the guy who shares her bed for that night.
Theron is superb in the opening sequences; getting out of bed completely naked, she stands at the window and looks down on some children (shepherded by their parents) going to school. Rigid and straight-faced, she displays herself to the horrified/fascinated group of people below, then turns to her still-sleeping, one-night stand lover and tells him to leave. “Five more minutes,” he begs. “No,” she says, in the flattest tone a woman can utter after a night of passion.
In stark contrast to Sylvia is Gina (Kim Basinger) — a mother of four in a New Mexico town who has found love outside her stable marriage to Robert (Brett Cullen). Gina sneaks off to a deserted trailer after the kids have gone to school to meet Nick (Joaquim de Almeida) and spend a few hours of uninhibited passion. Her oldest daughter, Mariana (an astounding performance by teenage newcomer Jennifer Lawrence), is onto her mother’s affair and often follows Gina on her bike, confirming what Nick looks like and what they do together in the curtainless bedroom.
“I love my mom but I don’t like her” is how she later sums up her mother, a spot-on assessment that’s likely to haunt Mariana for most of her adult life.
True to Arriaga’s plotting style, the lives of these three women are linked in a way that’s revealed piece by piece, but their connection feels more contrived, even banal — compared to the stories he’s written for Inarritu.
There’s a certain politeness at work here as Arriaga makes it easy for the audience, spoon feeding us his usual message about the inevitability of human suffering great and small and why some people — in this case Sylvia — can’t help but maximize her self-inflicted pain.
The ending is a cop-out, but at least you can see Sylvia hates what’s happening too, and is unsure whether to discharge a dose of dark fury. Here’s one person, at least, with guts enough to reject a happy ending.