Flame out

Both Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger disrobe, but the film still flounders

Sep 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), filled with boatloads of angsty pain and suffering, and obvious as hell, Guillermo Arriaga delivers another one of his time-skipping, multi-narrative, brow-wrenching melodramas. After penning the terrific Amores Perros, the overrated 21 Grams and Babel, and — the best of the lot — Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Arriaga has parlayed his Oscar-bait scripting into a first-time jaunt behind the camera. Too bad he saved his weakest screenplay yet for a debut.

More overwrought than overwhelming, The Burning Plain is heavy on symbolism (fire, rain, dead birds — oh, my!) and theatrics but light on ideas or meaningful emotions. Arriaga practically parodies himself as his film drowns in joyless themes of guilt and redemption. More amazingly, he convinces both Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger to get naked, and still the film is a rudderless downer.

Depressed but promiscuous restaurant manager Sylvia (Charlize Theron) mopes in blue-hued Oregon, self-injuring and banging her way through the week. Cut to the brilliant New Mexico plains, where philandering Gina (Kim Basinger) and Nick (Joaquim de Almeida) hook up for sex in a trailer halfway between their two homes. They perish in a horrific fire, which leads their teenage children, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Santiago (J.D. Pardo), to find love ... then, inevitably, even more tragedy. Meanwhile a Mexican crop duster (José María Yazpik) and single dad who dotes on his young daughter, heads to the states after his brother is injured in a plane crash, and begins to stalk Sylvia. How do these stories all fit together? Arriaga fragments and disjoints the narrative so completely, he hopes you won't figure it out until the final reel. 

But even after obscuring the film's revelations with jarring time shifts, threadbare subplots and ham-fisted misdirection, The Burning Plain amounts to a 20-minute jigsaw puzzle that takes nearly two hours to finish. Worse, for all Arriaga's pretenses of regret and redemption, the pain of his characters provides no meaningful lesson or release. Theron and Basinger are so narrowly defined by their suffering that there's nothing human to relate to, despite both actresses valiant attempts to provide more. In the end it's all just misery for misery's sake.

Arriaga's three-time collaborator, director Alejandro González Iñárritu, was often singled out for praise in their films, causing the screenwriter to bristle with envy. But despite the obvious flaws in 21 Grams and Babel, Iñárritu was a savvy enough director to make the narratives engrossing, the pace frantic, and emotions genuine. Instead of bitching about who deserved more credit for their successes, Arriaga probably should have paid more attention to how his former partner made his scripts look so good. 

Showing at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].