BURNING PLAIN, THE(director/writer: Guillermo Arriaga; cinematographers: Robert Elswit/John Toll; editor: Craig Wood; music: Omar Rodriguez-Lopez/Hans Zimmer; cast: Charlize Theron (Sylvia), Kim Basinger (Gina), John Corbett (John), Joaquim de Almeida (Nick Martinez), J.D. Pardo (Santiago), Danny Pino (Santiago, as an adult), José María Yazpik (Carlos), Jennifer Lawrence (Mariana), Brett Cullen (Robert), Tessa Ia (Maria), John Corbett (John); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Laurie MacDonald/Walter F. Parkes; Magnolia Pictures; 2008-USA/Argentina English & Spanish with English subtitles)
“It wearily limps along with its joyless obvious tale of loss, guilt and redemption.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The directing debut of Guillermo Arriaga. He’s the Mexican screenwriter (“Amores Perros”/”Babel”/”21 Grams”) who teamed with fellow countryman Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu on the three above mentioned films, whose intersecting plots were first welcomed as fresh but soon wore out their originality. Arriaga’s The Burning Plain is an ambitious romantic mystery that turns out to be a muddled effort filled with too many shortcomings to be overlooked.

The film veers between Oregon and New Mexico, and goes back and forth in time in an unclear way that might leave the viewer scratching his/her head over events. After about an hour into the film when Arriaga begins to tie the messy erotic drama together, things are dragged along at a tedious pace and everything registers as merely a writing exercise.

In the first part the crisscrossing story-lines are set up in Oregon and New Mexico.

Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is a beautiful, elegant, promiscuous, self-hating and self-mutilating posh restaurant maître d’ in Oregon with a professional demeanor that masks her inner turmoil and that she’s running away from her past. She’s being stalked by a nervous mysterious man named Carlos (Jose Maria Yazpik).

In the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico, some 12 years ago, we learn that two adulterous lovers are killed in an accidental trailer fire: the married Mexican-American Nick Martinez (Joaquim de Almeida, Portuguese actor) and Gina (Kim Basinger), a white mother of four. To add fuel to the fire, one of Nick’s teen son’s, Santiago (J.D. Pardo), catches the eye of Gina’s eldest daughter, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), at his dad’s funeral, where Gina’s husband, Robert (Brett Cullen), has come to yell racial insults at the Martinez family as he blames their dad for his wife’s death. They see each other in the desert and Santiago teaches Mariana how to kill birds with a sling shot.

If things weren’t confused enough, we fast forward to present day New Mexico and the grown Santiago (Danny Pino) now has a 12-year-old daughter, Maria (Tessa Ia). Santiago is working as a crop duster with his pal, the same Carlos who was following Sylvia in Oregon. The multi-layered soap opera tale relates to how the young Santiago and Mariana embarked on a forbidden relationship that could now spell trouble and put all parties concerned on a dangerous collision course.

There are great sunny vista location shots in Las Cruces, N.M. and stunning bleak wintry Portland, Orgon, shots of the cliffs, that at least make it a pretty film to view. The film’s major problem is the emotional level remains flat for all the characters who are defined only by tragedy, as they seem more like puppets asked to read lines from such an uninspiring script. The pretentious arty film is a slow, banal and dull slog that wearily limps along with its joyless obvious tale of loss, guilt and redemption.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”