Many of the weaknesses and few of the strengths of Guillermo Arriaga as a scripter are evident in his directing debut, "The Burning Plain."

Many of the weaknesses and few of the strengths of Guillermo Arriaga as a scripter are evident in his directing debut, “The Burning Plain.” Multicharacter head-scratcher, yo-yoing between New Mexico and Oregon, and back and forth in time, doesn’t finally reveal much beneath the emperor’s clothes to repay viewers’ concentration during the first half. Despite an OK-to-good cast led by Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger, plus a handsome tech package, this remains an elaborate writing exercise with few emotional hooks. Upscale auds, drawn by Arriaga’s name, may be curious.

Sometimes, with the right direction, Arriaga’s spaghetti structures can work just fine (“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”); at other times, notably in his trilogy with fellow Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Amores perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel”), the results can be hit-or-miss. There’s nothing endemically wrong with the script of “The Burning Plain” that less literal helming couldn’t have layered with some genuine feeling.

First 45 minutes toy with the viewer as various storylines are set up. A trailer explodes in the New Mexico desert, and two lovers are toast: Mexican-American Nick Martinez (Portuguese vet Joaquim de Almeida) and Gina (Basinger), a white mother of four. To make matters worse, Nick’s teen son, 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 berate the family for his wife’s death.

By this time, film has already been busily cross-cutting with a seemingly unconnected story, where the elegant but uptight Sylvia (Theron) runs a swish eatery on a wave-bruised cliffhead near Portland, Ore. We know she has a secret to hide because she smokes, has businesslike sex with various men and is being followed around by a mysterious man named Carlos (Jose Maria Yazpik). In one of pic’s least convincing scenes, she automatically tries to seduce him as well.

Back in New Mexico, the grown Santiago (Danny Pino), now with a 12-year-old daughter, Maria (Tessa Ia), is working as a crop duster with his pal, the selfsame Carlos; Gina and Nick, sneaking away for covert liaisons, have aroused the suspicions of their teenage kids; and young Santiago and Mariana are embarking on a relationship that could have major repercussions for everyone. Huh?

Despite the almost complete absence of visual signposts, it’s clear after a reel or so that the picture is constructed on two completely separate time levels, a generation apart. (Craig Wood’s editing is as smooth in this respect as is possible.)

The connection between the Oregon and New Mexico strands is clarified not so much by a Big Reveal but through a final confirmation, at the 80-minute mark, of small clues planted earlier. This works fine dramatically, except the movie drags on for another 15 minutes as various characters laboriously find closure on their guilt.

The audience is required to invest so much time in sorting out the early part of the picture — and to keep pace with Arriaga’s cleverness — that when, at the midway point, there’s breathing space to become engaged with the characters, the awful truth dawns that there’s little to become engaged with.

Arriaga moves his protags around at the convenience of the screenplay rather than their own, and their emotional lives and dialogue are of a very cliche nature. One exception is the Santiago-Mariana strand — which, largely due to an eye-catching performance by 17-year-old Lawrence, plumbs fresher depths, marbled with perversity, than most of the adults’ stories. But the screenplay still doesn’t make out a convincing case for her later actions.

Performances are as good as the script allows. Theron (also one of 11 producers) looks elegant and withdrawn without bringing much real emotion to the table; Basinger is only slightly better as an average mom looking for something beyond family life. Adult male roles are largely cutouts, apart from Yazpik’s gentle Carlos.

Shooting around Las Cruces, N.M., veteran d.p. Robert Elswit creates striking, sun-blasted vistas of sorghum fields, deserts and mountains, while fellow lenser John Toll’s wintry Portland segs provide welcome relief with grays, blacks and blues.

The Burning Plain

Production

A 2929 Prods. presentation, in association with Costa Films, of a Parkes/MacDonald production. (International sales: 2929 Intl., Los Angeles.) Produced by Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald. Executive producers, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban, Marc Butan, Charlize Theron, Alisa Tager, Ray Angelic. Co-producers, Beth Kono, Eduardo Costantini Jr., Mike Upton.

Crew

Directed, written by Guillermo Arriaga. Camera (color), Robert Elswit; additional camera, John Toll; editor, Craig Wood; music, Omar Rodriguez Lopez, Hans Zimmer; music supervisors, Dana Sano, Annette Fradera; production designer, Dan Leigh; art director, Naython Vane; costume designer, Cindy Evans; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital/SDDS), Lori Dovi, Jon Taylor, Christian P. Minkler; sound designers, Scott Wolf, Karen Vassar; assistant director, Phil Hardage; casting, Debra Zane. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Aug. 29, 2008. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Sylvia - Charlize Theron Gina - Kim Basinger Nick Martinez - Joaquim de Almeida John - John Corbett Laura - Robin Tunney Robert - Brett Cullen Santiago Martinez - Danny Pino Carlos - Jose Maria Yazpik Mariana - Jennifer Lawrence Young Santiago - J.D. Pardo Maria - Tessa Ia Ana - Rachel Ticotin
(English, Spanish dialogue)

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