What’s that smell? The plain isn’t the only thing that’s charred in screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s directorial debut; subtlety goes up in flames too. The Burning Plain, which Arriaga also scripted, follows the same fractured, parceled-out, time-toggling narrative structure found in his trilogy with Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel) and his collaboration with Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). Though far less globe-hopping and linguistically ambitious than 2006’s Babel, The Burning Plain, cutting between Mexico, New Mexico, and Oregon—in Spanish and English—shares the earlier film’s facile ideas about salvation and forgiveness.
The most damaged of the walking wounded in The Burning Plain is Sylvia (Charlize Theron, also one of the film’s executive producers), manager of an upscale restaurant perched on a seaside cliff near Portland. When not submitting to empty sex with strangers or men she despises, Sylvia likes to cut deep into her inner thigh with a sharp-edged stone. Arriaga’s usual overwrought symbolism is particularly heavy-handed here, with scars becoming The Burning Plain’s leitmotif. Gina (Kim Basinger), an unhappily married lower-class homemaker in Las Cruces, reveals the aftermath of her mastectomy to the man she’s having an affair with, Mexican-American dad Nick (Joaquim de Almeida). Gina’s teenage daughter, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), and Nick’s adolescent son, Santiago (J.D. Pardo), start their own doomed Romeo-and-Juliet romance, sealed by burning their flesh. Meanwhile, in Mexico, 12-year-old Maria (Tessa Ia) watches her father’s crop-duster crash into a field of sorghum; later, she’ll show the scar on her forehead to the mother who abandoned her as a newborn. At the film’s midpoint, the disparate elements begin to snap into place, the scar tissue connected, with characters completely at the mercy of Arriaga’s aggressive manipulation in the inexorable march toward fraudulent emotional epiphanies. Broken white people will be forgiven by the brown people they’ve hurt and harmed, and the world will be made right again.
Arriaga’s slice-and-dice storytelling masquerades as “art” when, more often than not, it can’t conceal the narrative’s egregious gaps and gaffes. The writer-director clearly feels no need to explain how Gina and Nick met or what Nick does or how long they’ve been seeing each other. Maria is 12 but says she’s in the ninth grade. Did she skip two years? Or has Arriaga’s time banditry become so excessive that he no longer considers it necessary to remain consistent within his own highly contrived schemas? What remains tediously constant is Arriaga’s soggy humanism, a universe in which early psychological wounds are salved by blithe, easy acceptance and understanding. Cultural, political, linguistic, and economic differences are collapsed into the realm of the interpersonal.
The roles—for women especially—in Arriaga’s scripts have often served as showboaty star vehicles for various blondes of varying talent: Naomi Watts in 21 Grams, Cate Blanchett in Babel, Theron, and, to a lesser extent, Basinger in The Burning Plain. Watts brought Diane Selwyn–in–Mulholland Drive levels of intensity to her character as a grieving, coke-snorting mother; Blanchett, a certain grace to her ugly-American-in-Morocco role, even though her character was unconscious most of the time. Not as gifted a performer as either Watts or Blanchett, Theron can only do so much in The Burning Plain: Sylvia might as well be unconscious as well, her “deadness” telegraphed by self-cutting and unpleasant sex. She will thaw and be made whole by a series of highly manufactured encounters and conversations, complete with hollow dialogue (“I can’t run away anymore”). In between trips to K-Mart and her assignations with Nick, Basinger’s Gina ceases to be a character and ossifies into a blue-collar construct: the sexually unfulfilled wife of a truck driver. The scar tissue hardens into sclerosis.