Jennifer Lawrence and the Women of ‘The Burning Plain’

The Burning Plain is a 2008 drama about a woman who must come to terms with her troubling past and lives that changed because of it.

I really like Jennifer Lawrence. That’s pretty easy to say, of course. In a remarkably short time, she’s become the highest-paid actress in the world, an Academy Award-winner, and one of most significant voices of her generation. There’s a lot to admire. And I say that having not really enjoyed a number of her movies, including The Hunger Games franchise, Passengers, and American Hustle. Once again, the movies. Not her.

Anyone who saw her Oscar-nominated work in 2010’s Winter’s Bone need look no further in recognizing that they’re watching something special. She did things in that movie as 19-year-old girl that still shake me. And she came close to doing it again in 2012 with The Silver Linings Playbook, even if overall the film didn’t have the same impact. Few probably know though that two years before Winter’s Bone, she was already demonstrating a presence on screen that would blaze the trail to her later success, a film that is not without its problems, but made worthy by not just hers, but a number of powerful female performances.

READ MORE: Review of Jennifer Lawrence‘s Joy

The Burning Plain is a complex drama, one that follows a few trendy films at the time told in non-linear fashion, such as Babel and 21 Grams, titles I mention purposefully as they were all written by Guillermo Arriaga, who serves as the director here. It stars Charlize Theron as Sylvia, the owner of a posh cliffside restaurant in Oregon, a woman seemingly desensitized to life, casually throwing herself into sex with no emotion and cutting the inside of her thigh in order to feel, well … anything. She has a dark past, one that takes time for the film to unravel, though I won’t spoil what that is here.

The Burning Plain
The Burning Plain, 2008 © 2929 Productions

Kim Basinger is Gina, a housewife married to cross-country truck driver Robert (Brett Cullen), the two living comfortably and raising children, including their eldest Mariana (Lawrence), though Gina is not happy and is deeply in love with Nick Martinez (Joaquim de Almeida), himself a married man. The two have an affair, and to make that possible, Nick has placed a broken down trailer home in the barren flats between their homes, far enough away from the town where no one will find them. It is here where they hide their relationship, though Mariana is suspect and begins to question her mother’s increasingly odd behavior, leading her to make some troublesome decisions. Again, there is much darkness in their story, and as above, none will be spoiled on my account.

The Burning Plain
The Burning Plain, 2008 © 2929 Productions

Mariana’s story grows on a second level, however, where she eventually meets Santiago (JD Pardo), a person she really ought to steer clear of, but finds herself uncontrollably compelled to know him better. At sixteen, she is far advanced in maturity, helping to raise her siblings, yet takes to misunderstanding what adults do in building her relationship with Santiago, a tough kid with kindness in his heart. You can be sure at this point, that not all goes well, and yup, you guessed it, my lips are sealed. 

READ MORE: Review of Jennifer Lawrence‘s Passengers

In fact, describing anything beyond this is really treading on thin ice, the story a highly compressed world where only few people interact but do so with great impact. The first forty minutes of the movie will most likely have you scratching your head, trying to figure out who all these people are and how the heck they are related, if at all. Arriaga almost aggressively avoids connecting any dots for the longest time, jumping from story to story with jarring results (mostly likely purposeful), and I’m still on the fence as to whether it really works. I would love to see a second edition where it was told in a way that follows the reveal more structurally in line, but taking it as it is, it mostly succeeds.

The Burning Plain
The Burning Plain, 2008 © 2929 Productions

That’s entirely because of the women. Theron, who serves as executive producer, is heartbreaking as Sylvia, she once again fearlessly exposing us to a deeply hurting woman. Theron literally strips herself bare, unglorified and flawed, giving us a penetrating observation of a broken soul barely coping with a string of poor choices and consequences.

READ MORE: 5 Great Charlize Theron Performances in Not So Great Movies

Basinger, too, captures a woman on the cusp of what she believes are the last good years of her beauty, having already suffered a physical setback that she is sure renders her lacking. She juggles her loveless marriage and distant children with the passion and compassion of what Nick offers, torn between the duties of a mother and wife with an unrestrained longing to be truly loved.

The Burning Plain
The Burning Plain, 2008 © 2929 Productions

Then there’s Lawrence, who is mesmerizing as a youth caught in the middle of a dying marriage, tending to her younger brothers and sisters, playing mommy while Gina is away. After she meets Santiago, much has already horrifically and deeply scarred her, and the way Lawrence portrays this, with genuine hollowness in her eyes, is quite affecting.

The problems lie with the crisscrossing storythreads since we have to often guess why characters act as they do while it’s happening and then reflect back once we get the truth. This, I think, strips away some of the larger emotional effectiveness in certain scenes because we miss the opportunity to jump on our reaction when we should. Part of that falls on the director, since this is clearly a narrative device that’s worked before, and I’ll admit, it’s hard to pinpoint where it all weakens, however, the general ‘looseness’ of it will surely be a minor struggle for many.

Either way, there is much to like about The Burning Plain, with Robert Elswit‘s lush cinematography and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Hans Zimmer‘s evocative score also greatly appreciated. However, this a film I recommend purely for the performances, and especially for fans of Lawrence who should see where this talent got her foot in the door.

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