The Burning Plain, the directorial debut of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, transitions so fluidly from an unremarkable multi-narrative to abhorrently over-sentimentalized trash that, after the film is done with you, your brain may feel as if it has been twisted into a knot. At what point exactly did the film become so unbelievably trite? Did Arriaga see it as his duty to outshine the self-seriousness of his script for Babel by making another film so sure of its own importance that it couldn't be bothered to do anything creative, daring, or even palatable? There are no answers to these questions, and Arriaga's film doesn't leave you thinking about much else. Article continues below
As in his script for 21 Grams, The Burning Plain opens on an act of violence, and then spends its running time realigning all the factors leading up to that moment and its aftermath. A trailer fire in the New Mexico desert that claims two lives in the film's opening moments is both the film's central mystery and its most captivating image, with Arriaga carefully feeding us nuggets of information about the tragedy. The psychological whiplash of the event seems not only to plague but also to set a course for Sylvia (Charlize Theron), the daughter of the woman who perished in the fire. Now a successful restaurateur, Sylvia indulges in emotionless bed-hopping and ritualized cutting while attempting to ignore her abandoned daughter (Tessa Ia), who reappears in the wake of her own tragedy.
Unable to help himself, Arriaga leaps between the cobalt-blue environs of present-day Oregon and the sunny suburbs of New Mexico where a young Sylvia, born Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), watches her mother (Kim Basinger) fall for another man (Joaquim de Almeida). After the fire, Sylvia begins a romance with Santiago (J.D. Pardo), the son of her mother's lover. It is grown-up Santiago's (Danny Pino) accident that leads to Sylvia's strained reunion with her daughter.
The reunion, hastily executed and torrentially expositional, comes near the end and feels more like an afterthought. Arriaga piles on wasteful scenarios in the hopes of giving his film scope and size, but they serve mostly to detach us from the action and the characters. Pity poor John Corbett, the charming actor from My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the Sex and the City series, who is given the thankless and completely unnecessary role of Sylvia's current romancer. Blink and you'll miss sassy character actress Robin Tunney doing nothing as Sylvia's friend and co-worker.
Some may be surprised to find that The Burning Plain harbors some of the most stalled female performances of the year, seeing as Arriaga's scripts have so often given great actresses some of their most challenging roles (Naomi Watts in 21 Grams, Rinko Kukichi in Babel). It's hard to understand why Theron so blatantly trades nudity for vulnerability and coldness for desperation in a role so akin to Watts' in Grams. Similar things could be asked of Basinger, but after her inattentive work in the putrid The Informers, her dullness here doesn't come as a surprise. In hindsight, it shines a whole new light on Alejandro González Iñárritu's talent with actors.
Arriaga's abilities, both technically and with his performers, might someday come into their own, after further experience has properly seasoned him. But The Burning Plain is the work of a writer stuck in his own narrative tempest and a novice director without a beacon.