Metaphors are often effective tools in filmmaking. They can be used in a variety of unique and clever ways to either highlight a particular aspect of story and/or character. They can be used to add an artistic flourish to a movie. They can even be used to drive a plot, if you’re careful enough to avoid becoming too abstract. Then there are films like The Burning Plain which attempt to create a film that is metaphor itself. What you often end up with, and certainly here, is something difficult to follow and more acceptable at the festival circuit than at the box office. The movie performed abysmally at the box, and that is in spite of some rather glowing reviews. The general public is never going to “get” a film like this. Honestly, I’m not sure that I even understood it. What I do know is that whatever level of understanding or entertainment I might have gotten here, I had to work too hard to get it. There’s a simple equation of investment of resources and return that this film just simply fails to deliver. And if they think I’m harsh, wait until they try to sell it to the average viewer. Most people have less patience than I when it comes to movies, but director and writer Guillermo Arriaga demands far more than I was willing to give. And evidenced by the mere 200 grand at the limited run box office, it was more than most of you were willing to give as well.
The story is told from a perspective of several places and times. We learn that Gina (Basinger) and Nick (deAlmeida) were having an affair. Both had families. They used to rendezvous at a trailer out in the middle of an isolated plain. They are killed in a horrible fire and explosion that burned so hot, we are told, that their bodies melted together and had to be cut apart with a knife. In the aftermath, their families develop a severe hatred for each other, each blaming the other for taking away their parent. But in traditional Romeo and Juliet fashion, two of the children, one from each side, fall in love. The identity of these two and the things that they did would be spoilers here. Suffice it to say that you should spend some time attempting to pick up on the details and nuances here. Another story involves Santiago (Pino) who now lives in Mexico with his young daughter. He owns a crop dusting business. Of course, flying small planes can be a dangerous business. Actually flying is very safe. Crashing, on the other hand can be dangerous. When he is injured, a friend helps his daughter track down the girl’s mother, Sylvia (Theron), now living in Oregon running a restaurant. Of course, we know that these stories all have common threads and even common characters.
This is actually a very old story with a modern day twist. The Native Americans all had legends and tales about the conflicts and travails of the world’s four most basic elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water. If you watch the film closely enough, you will see clearly that Arriaga intended for his characters to represent these elements. If you notice Sylvia, she’s either always standing in the rain or looking out over large bodies of water. She is the obvious Water character here. The next obvious would be the doomed lovers who end up consumed in first a steamy affair and eventually a large conflagration. The next obvious would be the character of Santiago, who if you recall, flew planes for a living placing him just as obviously in the Wind character role. The least obvious is the Earth characters. You have to pay a bit more attention to find that Mariana (Lawrence) and the young Santiago (Pardo) are very much associated with the dirt and the ground. None of these associations are accidental.
The performances are the true bright spot in the film. While they may not have as much to do with their characters as I’d like to have seen, everyone gives their best here. The actors do blend into their characters with a rare ease.
The film itself is rather beautiful at times, but Arriaga fails to truly take advantage of some spectacular surroundings, whether it be wide mountain vistas or breathtaking overlooks on the ocean. They are there and play a huge part in the ongoing metaphor, but he never allows the camera to quite focus on their majesty. In the end it’s like watching those annoying family slides which take place in spectacular environments, but the photographer was to busy focusing on Aunt Tilly’s false teeth grin. You want to reach out and refocus, but of course, you can’t. Perhaps he did not want to distract from what he was really trying to show us, but distractions are all we end up with. You are always lost in time. Until you begin to recognize the characters, you never know where exactly in time you are. Add to that the incredibly slow pacing, and this film takes forever to get anywhere at all. It took me most of 45 minutes to get any kind of real understanding of what was actually going on here. So, the question you have to ask yourself, as the man once said, is are you willing to invest that much time without knowing what’s going on? Your answer pretty much makes the case for buying or not buying this Blu-ray.
The Burning Plain is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with a VC-1 codec at an average 18 mbps. Unfortunately, this Blu-ray doesn’t rise to high definition standards in my book. The bit rate rarely reaches 20 mbps, and I consider the VC-1 codec to be somewhat inferior to the AVC/MPEG4. The result is a disappointingly soft picture with little detail or sharpness at any point. Color is purposely drab in most places so that we don’t even have a nice color assortment to satisfy us. Black levels are merely average and provide little in the way of expected shadow definition. It’s hard to separate the artistic intent from a relatively poor Blu-ray presentation. Either way, it’s not much more than a really good DVD from my vantage point.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio captures the environment effectively, and that’s about all I can really say about it. This is often a silent contemplative film, so there isn’t going to be much of anything to stand out here at all. Dialog is fine, and about the best thing I can say is there are no obvious flaws in the presentation. It is merely rather flat.
The Making Of The Burning Plain: (43:27) SD This one focuses primarily on Arriaga, who talks his way through most of the running time. He gives us a quick rundown on the characters and story. He does talk about the confusing nature of the film, acknowledging the effort it takes to stay with it. He doesn’t really cover the whole metaphor thing much here at all, even though it’s the cornerstone of the piece.
The Music Of The Burning Plain: (15:33) SD This is fly on the wall footage of conversations between Arriaga and composer Omar Rodriguez Lopez. You get to see some of the recording sessions as well.
HDNET – A Look At The Burning Plain: (4:46) HD This is merely an HD Network promo for the film.
My mother used to tell me that patience was a virtue. I always found it rather convenient, however, that my being virtuous always corresponded to the times that she was being rather slow. I was never able to locate the virtue when our situations were reversed. So it seems with filmmaking. I understand that the film festival rounds are a different environment for films. It always appeared a bit elitist to me, and I hunger for the more down to earth festival circuit that appeals to the common man. Then I realized that that circuit does indeed exist. It’s called the box office, and it’s always been a mystery to me how the top 20 or so films in gross of all time have never really been much honored at the awards ceremonies. Hollywood, like our government at times, appears to enjoy rewarding failure. If the masses don’t appreciate your work, it’s because, as our president recently said about his policy failures, we’re not really capable of understanding the nuances of their sophistication. Rubbish. I understand just fine. But understanding and liking are not the same virtues. (Sorry Mom.) I hope that Arriago and his crowd don’t judge my review too harshly. There’s always the possibility that they won’t be able to understand the subtlety of my sophistication … or not. Arriaga will of course try to tell me that in writing this review, “I did a terrible thing”.