You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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."

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

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Cast: 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)

More Scene

  • 71st Emmys Governors Ball

    Why the Television Academy Plans to Donate Furnishings From the 71st Emmys Governors Ball

    The Emmys’ official after party is set to impress — and to leave a permanent impression. At the annual press preview of the 71st Emmys Governors Ball, the Television Academy announced a partnership with Living Spaces, Habitat for Humanity and the Hollywood Community Housing Project that will provide more than 80 custom sofas, chairs and [...]

  • Gaby Hoffmann, Albert Cheng, Alexandra Billings,

    'Transparent' Team Reflects on Series Finale Without Jeffrey Tambor

    Friday night’s premiere of the series finale of “Transparent” at L.A. Live’s Regal theater felt like a family reunion for the Pfefferman clan. Matriarch Judith Light embraced each one of her TV children (Gaby Hoffman, Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass) and guest stars from previous seasons (Cherry Jones, Melora Hardin, Bradley Whitford) who also turned [...]

  • Game of Thrones Season 8

    'Game of Thrones,' 'Avengers' Win Big at 45th Annual Saturn Awards

    As Jamie Lee Curtis picked up her first trophy ever at the 45th Annual Saturn Awards Friday night, she had a good luck charm on her arm: former manager Chuck Binder, whom she said was the reason she became an actor. “I was in college and had no thought of being an actor,” Curtis told [...]

  • Pom Klementieff poses at the launch

    Marvel Cinematic Universe Star Pom Klementieff Talks Disney-Fox Merger, X-Men Dreams

    Pom Klementieff may have entered the Marvel Cinematic Universe playing Mantis in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” followed by appearances in the last two “Avengers” movies, but that wasn’t her original superhero plan. “My dream was to be in X-Men,” she told Variety on Thursday at the Chanel dinner for its new fragrance Gabrielle [...]

  • Gwyneth Paltrow

    Gwyneth Paltrow to Be Honored at amfAR Gala Los Angeles

    Gwyneth Paltrow and art dealer Larry Gagosian are set to be honored at the 2019 amfAR Gala Los Angeles. The American Foundation for AIDS Research announced that the two honorees will receive the Award of Courage for their commitment in the fight against HIV and AIDS as well as for their other humanitarian efforts. Christina [...]

  • David Mandel Sam Richardson

    'The Handmaid's Tale,' 'Veep,' 'When They See Us' Writers Honored at Emmy Nominees Reception

    Ava DuVernay (“When They See Us”), David Mandel (“Veep”) and Bruce Miller and Kira Snyder (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) were among those honored at the Television Academy’s Emmy nominees writers reception on Tuesday night in North Hollywood. There, ceremony hosts, “Escape at Dannemora” star Eric Lange and “Veep’s” Sam Richardson, kept the show moving by tossing in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content