‘Burning Plain’ eventually fizzles

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, September 17, 2009 4:57pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

An important member of the recent Mexican New Wave in film is Guillermo Arriaga, the screenwriter whose work includes the violently brilliant “Amores Perros” and the English-language Tommy Lee Jones picture, “The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada.”

Arriaga worked closely with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (including “21 Grams” and “Babel”), although the partners had a falling-out over accusations about which one was getting too much credit for the work.

“The Burning Plain” is Arriaga’s first film as a director himself, so this time he’ll get all the credit. And shoulder some blame, too.

The structure of the film will be familiar to fans of Arriaga’s previous pictures: The story is fractured into three separate sections — which, we might suspect, are not entirely separate.

In one section, we ponder the self-destructive habits of Sylvia (Charlize Theron), a restaurant manager on the Oregon coast. In the midst of her irresponsible lifestyle, a quiet man arrives to confront her.

In another section, a restless housewife (Kim Basinger) steps out on her family for a torrid affair with her New Mexico neighbor (Joaquim de Almeida). Basinger makes for the most compelling presence in the movie, trembling with her usual fragile intensity.

We might also be curious (or perhaps not) about a third arena, in which a Mexican girl and her crop-duster father deal with a very serious accident.

For me, “Babel” was the film where Arriaga’s work tipped from being thoughtful and ambitious into over-seriousness. “The Burning Plain” continues that unfortunate trend: It takes its glum view of life and fate and repeats it through different episodes.

As with Arriaga’s previous story pretzels, the film does offer some appeal as a puzzle. Not knowing how all this stuff fits together makes the first hour a tantalizing lure.

After a while you realize the New Mexico section is really the only one that has a life of its own, and a sense of place, and a sad grasp of lives going wrong in the American countryside. The other two parts are just dependent clauses.

Passable acting keeps it going, with Theron (always a skillful performer, despite the pretty face) well suited to conveying Sylvia’s morbid disposition. But admirable as much of the movie is, the resolution leaves you with the sense that it was all a little too neat.

“The Burning Plain” ½

Three separate story lines (a trademark of “Babel” writer Guillermo Arriaga) thread through this somber puzzle, as one woman (Charlize Theron) engages in self-destructive behavior, and another (Kim Basinger) embarks on an extramarital affair. The guessing game keeps it interesting for a while, but finally the resolution of the threads makes it all seem a little too neat and over-serious.

Rated: R for nudity, language, subject matter

Showing: Harvard Exit

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