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

Just Posted

Cabernet sauvignon grapes sat in a container after being crushed at Smith-Madrone Winery in St. Helena. (Courtesy Smith-Madrone Winery)
San Francisco’s ‘Champagne problems’ — Wine industry suffers supply chain woes

‘Everywhere you turn, things that were easy are no longer easy’

Glasses behind the bar at LUNA in the Mission District on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. Glassware is just one of the many things restaurants have had trouble keeping in stock as supply chain problems ripple outward. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
SF restaurants face product shortages and skyrocketing costs

‘The supply chain crisis has impacted us in almost every way imaginable’

A Giants fans hangs his head in disbelief after the Dodgers won the NLDS in a controversial finish to a tight Game 5. (Chris Victorio/Special to The Examiner)
Giants dream season ends at the hands of the Dodgers, 2-1

A masterful game comes down to the bottom of the ninth, and San Francisco came up short

<strong>Workers with Urban Alchemy and the Downtown Streets Team clean at Seventh and Market streets on Oct. 12. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)</ins> </strong>
<ins></ins>
Why is it so hard to keep San Francisco’s streets clean?

Some blame bureaucracy, others say it’s the residents’ fault

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — seen in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday — touted Congressional Democrats’ infrastructure bill in San Francisco on Thursday. (Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times)
Pelosi touts infrastructure bill as it nears finish line

Climate change, social safety net among major priorities of Democrats’ 10-year funding measure

Most Read