Guillermo Arriaga specializes in tricky scripts with multiple story lines and shifting chronologies, but previously they’ve been directed by others—Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Amores perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel”) or Tommy Lee Jones (“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”). Here he takes on that duty himself—a mistake. It’s difficult to say whether the chief fault in “The Burning Plain” is its mediocre script or its indifferent direction. But since Arriaga is responsible for both, he’s clearly to blame.
The film opens with a tragedy that scours two families as an isolated trailer explodes in New Mexico, killing two people inside: Gina (Kim Basinger) and Nick (Joaquim de Almeida), engaged in an adulterous affair. Their deaths occasion an angry scene at Nick’s funeral, where Gina’s husband (Brett Cullen) intrudes to confront his family. There Gina’s eldest daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Nick’s son Santiago (J.D. Pardo) encounter one another, and in time that meeting deepens into a teen romance troubled by their families’ natural hostilities.
Intercut with this story is a seemingly unrelated one set in coastal Oregon, where Sylvia (Charlize Theron), a stylish restaurant manager, is having a quasi-affair with her employee John (John Corbett). She’s also being shadowed by a mystery man, Carlos (Jose Maria Yazpik).
A third thread is introduced with the now-grown Santiago (Danny Pino) working as a crop duster back in New Mexico with his partner, none other than Carlos. He also has a young daughter named Maria (Tessa Ia). And in a fourth plot element, we’re taken back in time to see the affair develop between Nick and Gina, knowing the effect it will have on their families.
The convolutions of the script, with its myriad shifts in plot and time, are obvious, but in the final analysis so are the revelations that come in the last reels, which are far less surprising than Arriaga clearly intends them to be. As so often happens in such interlaced tales, intricacy of construction takes precedence over depth of meaning or characterization, and the work entailed in figuring things out isn’t rewarded by any emotional insight.
Perhaps one would feel differently if the execution were stronger, but Arriaga doesn’t show any particular directorial gifts, staging everything in a plain, unadorned style that avoids grandstanding but also seems rather limp. And for the most part the cast respond by following the twists and turns of the script fairly mechanically, without adding much shading to the characters they’re playing. Surprisingly, teens Pardo and Lawrence and young Ia make the strongest impressions, while Theron and Basinger come across as rather stiff and uncomfortable, with the other adults mostly bland.
On the technical side, “The Burning Plain” makes atmospheric use of the locations both in the Southwest and the Northwest, thanks to the efforts not only of chief cinematographer Robert Elswit, but of John Toll, who stepped in for him at one point. The blistering desert and fields of New Mexico are strikingly caught, and the damp, cool feel of Oregon provides a strong alternative. But the score ascribed to Omar Rodriguez Lopez and Hans Zimmer is fairly nondescript, as is the overall production design and art direction by Dan Leigh and Naython Vane.
One can respect Arriaga’s ambitions in a film like “The Burning Plain” while regretting that he’s failed to realize them. In this case, at least, his reach has exceeded his grasp, and he’s manufactured a puzzle that turns out to be a disappointment when what’s initially hidden is fully revealed.