The Burning Plain

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
The Burning Plain Movie Poster Image
Poignant story of infidelity, loss, remorse; not for kids.
  • R
  • 2009
  • 107 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Characters make plenty of iffy decisions with painful consequences, but the movie ultimately sends the message that redemption is possible against even great odds. Taking responsibility for behavior is seen as necessary and important, and wrongdoers pay dearly for their mistakes. The effect of parents' behavior (good and bad) upon their children is closely observed.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Although some children with strong moral centers are able to overcome adversity and a central character comes to terms with her past and faces those she has hurt, characters also commit adultery, hurt themselves and others, and behave in very complicated ways.


Two people are killed in a violent explosion/fire in a trailer -- this event is shown multiple times. A woman engages in self-mutilation by carving into her leg; teens burn their arms with a lighter in mutual "scarring" pact; a father slaps his teen daughter across the face; a crop dusting plane crashes as the young daughter of the pilot watches; two birds are killed with slingshots.


Many scenes with lots of sexual activity, nudity, and implied sexual intercourse -- including scenes of females undressing and being undressed, bare backs, buttocks, breasts, full nudity in shadows, sexual foreplay, and shots of implied intercourse in a variety of positions. Teens are seen kissing, starting to undress, embracing, beginning foreplay, and, finally, post-intercourse with bare shoulders visible.


Swearing and harsh language in several scenes, including: "f--k" (in many forms), "slut," "bitch," "hell," "son of a bitch," "Jesus Christ," and "bulls--t." There's also one scene with racial slurs, including "wetback" and jeering use of "Mexican."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Occasional wine drinking and beer consumption. Several characters smoke throughout.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this movie focuses on an adulterous relationship and the devastation it causes to its many victims. There are several scenes of frank sexuality, including passionate foreplay, suggested intercourse, and nudity (bare female breasts, buttocks, backs, and a fully nude woman seen from a distance). A violent explosion/fire that kills two adults is shown several times, though without any gruesome shots of the people inside. A young woman is seen mutilating her leg ("cutting") in a gesture of self-loathing, and two teens use a cigarette lighter to scar themselves. There's also plenty of strong language (including "f--k," "s--t," "bastard," "slut," etc.), smoking throughout, and occasional drinking.

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What's the story?

In THE BURNING PLAIN, a terrible event -- an isolated house trailer explodes and burns on a deserted field -- is at the center of a story that takes viewers through the years and back again, moves repeatedly from Oregon to Mexico and New Mexico, and tells the tales of some of the people touched by the tragedy. In the trailer, a mother of four (Kim Basinger) and a father of two (Joachim de Almeida) -- not married to each other -- are killed while in the midst of their illicit (but loving) affair. The many people affected by their relationship and its violent demise include a self-destructive restaurant manager (Charlize Theron), her lovers and a mysterious man who's stalking her, a crop-dusting pilot and his little girl, and the lovers' teen children. How these people are related to the explosion -- and how their lives are inevitably locked together -- is revealed slowly and mysteriously.

Is it any good?

The Burning Plain is made with great care and integrity and showcases fine, earnest efforts from a talented cast. (J.D. Pardo is particularly memorable as the adulterous father's teen son.) But its languid pace and the basic grimness of the characters' lives make it heavy going some of the time.

The movie is the first directorial effort by Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros. This movie, like those earlier films, tells its story in a nonlinear manner, moving backward and forward through the years and from place to place while focusing on a variety of characters. At first these shifts may seem random, often confusing. As the film's multiple characters and story lines converge, it's the audience's job, along with the filmmaker's, to put the pieces of the puzzle together and come to a satisfying conclusion.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the fact that guilt is a recurring theme of the movie. Which characters feel guilty? How do the characters reveal their guilt? Are any of the characters strong role models?

  • How many lives were affected by the behavior of two people who fell in love and had an affair? Can you think of other instances in which many people suffer because of the actions of a few? What can we do to be aware of this fact when we make important life choices?

  • The filmmaker uses a nonlinear storytelling method, with repeated shifts of time and place. What do you think the goal behind that decision is? What does this technique require of the viewer?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dramas

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