It takes a distinguished artist to pull off a directorial debut with unique style. Apparently, director Guillermo Arriaga isn't quite that distinguished. With The Burning Plain, Arriaga once again boasts that singular brand of structural and temporal chaos found in his screenplays -- Amores Perros, Babel, and 21 Grams -- but it's precisely this iconoclasm that's the source of both The Burning Plain's deepest flaw and its grandest achievement.
In the film, Gina (Kim Basinger) is a housewife who falls in love with a Mexican man, Nick (Joaquim de Almeida), in an anonymous American border town. Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), Gina’s daughter, discovers the affair and, after the unintentional deaths of Gina and Nick in a mobile home, subsequently falls in love with Nick’s son. A decade later, Mariana assumes a new name, Sylvia (now played by Charlize Theron), to hide from her past. As Sylvia, Mariana has become a competent restaurant manager with a penchant for self-destructive behavior and abandonment.
And that's about it. Watching Arriaga’s stories play out in a non-linear format, we suspect that we're in the presence of genius, that there is more going on than can be comprehended in one viewing. And maybe this is true. Yet, there is a moment, about 15 minutes into The Burning Plain, when the film lays its cards fully on the table. It's an awkward time to reveal the narrative thrust, and the film spends its remainder uncovering what viewers could infer a few scenes in. My hope was that there was something beyond the connection of the three primary characters, but it turns out (spoiler alert) there isn’t.
Still, outside of Amores Perros, this may be, structurally, Arriaga's strongest screenplay. He is always dealing with issues of memory and distortion, the present’s temporal relationship to what we perceive to be the past. In its treatment of those themes, The Burning Plain can be highly effective. It is devoid of the dualism that made Babel a blunt shot in the face, and it tames the melodramatic tones and breakneck speed of 21 Grams. The disjointed nature of the film feels natural, as though each character's life is part of a single leitmotif.
Unfortunately, because the characters aren’t very interesting, The Burning Plain isn't either. The cast is anchored by three solid performances from Basinger, Lawrence, and Theron. They all deserve some credit for creating intrigue between characters that are predictable and, generally, fall within some pretty rudimentary tropes. The structure should make the story more interesting, but one can't help but think that the melodramatic moments might've carried more weight had they been structured linearly.
The Burning Plain does have some redeeming qualities: the tone and look are distinctive and enveloping; the sparse, beautiful soundtrack, a product of collaboration between Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (The Mars Volta, At the Drive-In) and Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight), punctuates the impressive cinematography of Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton); and Elswit’s camera showcases the beauty of the landscape, captures the tiniest expressions of emotion, and allows the camera to linger a little longer than normal. Indeed, while these elements don't quite save the film, they are intriguing enough to make it a gorgeously frustrating experience.