Burning Plain, The: Starring Oscar Winners Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger

“The Burning Plain,” the directorial debut of the Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, is a film of many promises but few achievements.  Despite high-caliber cast, headed by Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger, and good production values, the tale displays Arriaga’s familiar shortcoming as a writer, as well as some new ones as a director, particularly when storytelling, narrative flow, and pacing are concerned.


“The Burning” Plain world premiered in competition at the 2008 Venice Film Festival to mixed response, after which it played at Toronto Fest.  It’s now being released theatrically by Magnolia, but I doubt that many people will see the picture in the already crowded fall season.


It’s so seldom that we get to see strong female roles, and in “The Burning Plain” there are several of them, that it’s harder than the usual to critique and dismiss this ultimately disappointing work.  The fact that they are played by such gifted actresses as Theron and Basinger (both Oscar winners) raises the already high expectations from Arriaga work to an even higher level.


In generic terms, “The Burning Plain” could be described as a romantic mystery drama about a woman on the edge facing a crisis, who decides to take an emotional journey back to her past, or more specifically to what she considered to be the defining moments of her life. 


Charlize Theron (also credited as one of the film’s numerous producers) plays Sylvia, a beautiful restaurant manager whose cool, professional demeanor masks inner tensions and repressed sexuality.  Sylvia likes to sleep with strangers because there’s no commitment involved, but after sex, she engages in self-punishing physical acts.


When a stranger from Mexico confronts her with her mysterious past, Sylvia is embarks on a journey through space and time, which inextricably connects her to these disparate characters, all of whom are grappling with their own destinies.


Cut to Mexico and the young motherless girl Maria (Tessa Ia), who lives happily with her father and his best friend–until a tragic accident changes it all.  Meanwhile, in the New Mexico border town of Las Cruces, two teenagers, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Santiago (JD Pardo), find love in the aftermath of their parents’ sudden deaths.  Then, in an abandoned trailer, Gina (Kim Basinger) a white housewife of four kids, gets involved in a passionate affair that puts Sylvia and the others on a collision course with the explosive power of forbidden love.


In its disparate, fractured stories about suffering and redemption, and calculated insistence on interconnectedness among is multi-character ensemble, the narrative and temporal structures of “Burning Plain” echo Arriaga’s scenarios for Alejandro González Innaritu (“Amores perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel”).


“The Burning Plain” was shot on location in the Chihuahuan Desert region of New Mexico and the brooding coastal region of Oregon inland to Portland, two vastly disparate regions whose unique elements have strong impact on each of the characters and their respective lifestyles.


While most of the characters are tormented and their tangled web of relationships border on the perverse, Arriaga the helmer shows no facility for dramatic engagement, black (0r any kind of) humor, or irony.  Most of the movie, particularly the first hour, plods along slowly in earnest, solemn manner.


You may or may not know that Guillermo Arriaga had a falling out with Alejandro González Innaritu around the release of the Oscar-nominated “Babel,” claiming that he is the real auteur of their collaboration and thus should be accorded greater credit.  Justified or not, this authorial frustration might have motivated Arriaga to try his hand at helming.   However, judging by the end result, Arriaga’s statements seem arrogant, and I doubt whether he has a viable future as a director.