Pieces don’t fit in ‘Burning Plain’ puzzle

“The Burning Plain,” brought to you by Trauma Central, is an ordinary melodrama – romance, disaster, guilt, redemption and insanely unlikely coincidences – that novice director and labyrinthian screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga has fractured and reassembled into a wanna-be jigsaw sizzler.

Sadly, he’s delivered a flat misery mosaic that fatally lacks both the piece-specific intrigue and the big-picture dimension that such nonlinear storytelling needs.

Arriaga, whose better screenplays include “Amores Perros” and “Babel” (both directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) and “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (turned into a tragicomic macabre gem by Tommy Lee Jones), again serves up worthy themes such as cross-cultural connections, the reverberations of catastrophe and punishment and revenge.

But at the keyboard, he appears trapped in the spinnings of his own plot webs, and, as a director, he’s weaker still.

Set in dual universes, the story follows two women a generation apart. The deadly explosion of a trailer, which affects both women in horrific ways, serves as the tragic epicenter.

In Oregon, outwardly cool, inwardly tormented Sylvia (Charlize Theron) manages an upscale restaurant, has meaningless sex, and takes long cigarette breaks that include looking mournfully at the surf and cutting her skin.

In New Mexico, married Gina (Kim Basinger) has a mastectomy scar, a Mexican lover named Nick (Joaquim De Almeida), and a resentful teenage daughter, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence).

Gina’s taboo affair soon echoes in Mariana’s romance with Nick’s son Santiago (J.D. Pardo).

Preteen Maria (Tessa Ia), who is the daughter of the adult Santiago (Danny Pino), and Carlos (Jose Maria Yazpik), Santiago’s friend, also figure in, following a secondary fiery disaster.

Unfortunately, not all writers who can pen a decent twister prove sharp or gripping as directors (consider Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” or Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana”).

In Arriaga’s case, the results are, additionally, shallow.

Arriaga wants to say something substantial about love, parent-child relationships and the aftershocks of trauma, like fellow jigsaw storyteller Atom Egoyan, perhaps.

But this is mediocre see-how-they-suffer fare filled with preposterous behavior, dim symbolism and key connections that are conveyed largely via common hair color or facial expression.

Neither the mystery of who’s linked to whom nor the purportedly passionate romances unfold in a compelling way.

Basinger and Theron appear to be struggling to achieve some serious emotion and can’t work miracles. Theron initially intrigues, showing a suppressed, haunted Sylvia, but Arriaga is too busy yanking viewers around between story lines to develop the character’s crucial element.

MOVIE REVIEW
The Burning Plain: Two stars

Starring Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence, J.D.  Pardo
Written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 41 minutes
 

artsBurning PlainentertainmentGuillermo ArriagaOther Arts

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Program busing homeless out of SF sees sharp decline

City to reopen in-person Homeward Bound office to boost participation

New law makes sustainable transit easier, faster and cheaper to implement

SB 288 will add a number of climate-friendly infrastructure projects to CEQA exemption list

Nearly 50,000 facing evacuations as fires besiege California wine country

By Luke Money, Anita Chabria, Rong-Gong Lin II and Hayley Smith Los… Continue reading

Giants 5-4 loss to Padres a tough finish to a surprisingly strong season

By Gideon Rubin Special to The Examiner Austin Slater lifted his helmet… Continue reading

Family, friends and police search for missing veteran with head injury

Abraham Isaac Siliezar, 56, is an at-risk missing person with multiple medical conditions

Most Read