“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.
The Burning Plain: Two stars
Starring Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence, J.D. Pardo
Written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga
Running time 1 hour, 41 minutes