A novice director makes the pieces fit

Kim Basinger in "Burning Plain."

Mexico's Guillermo Arriaga, who made his mark as an innovative writer with his magnificent screenplays for Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 Grams and Babel, makes his directorial debut with Burning Plain, another fragmented tale about the emotionally fragmented set in disparate times and locations.

For better or worse, the new film relies on the same narrative bells and whistles.

A classic melodrama about thwarted desire, failed relationships, and unrealized dreams, Plain delivers solid turns from a stellar cast led by Charlize Theron, Joaquim de Almeida, and Kim Basinger, and a breakout performance by the remarkably radiant 18-year-old Jennifer Lawrence.

The film opens with an image of a lone trailer burning to the ground in the middle of a barren wilderness. We learn that the fire killed an adulterous couple (Basinger and de Almeida) who were cheating on their respective spouses. Later, we learn about their ill-fated romance and its effect on their families.

A quick shift takes us to a lush, gray-blue rainy city and to Sylvia (Theron), whose emotional barrenness matches the trailer's desert setting.

We are presented with a question: Why would Sylvia, an intelligent, beautiful, successful restaurateur, spend every moment of her life trying to erase herself with meaningless sexual encounters, by cutting herself, or by staring out yonder on the edge of a cliff?

In a third, seemingly unconnected plotline, a Mexican crop duster (Danny Pino) who has a near-fatal plane crash asks his best friend (José María Yazpik) to help locate his young daughter's (Tessa Ia) mother.

At points, the movie drags with too much emotional weight and is marred by its psychoanalytic ambitions to lay bare each character's core being.

But patient viewers will find that Arriaga comes through with his multidimensional story. By the end the various parts of the story converge perfectly, like the pieces of a puzzle. Guilt is uncovered, emotional hang-ups addressed, and meaning restored to life.

The final mosaic is emotionally fulfilling, if somewhat prosaic, given its elaborate structure.

But for all of that, we are left with one nagging doubt: For a film that strives so hard to show the sheer messiness of real people's lives, Burning Plain does have an impossibly neat ending.


Burning Plain *** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Guillermo Arriaga. With Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Joaquim de Almeida, Jennifer Lawrence, José María Yazpik.

Running time: 1 hour, 51 mins.

Parent's guide: Rated R (sex, mild violence, adult themes)

Playing at: Prince Music Theater tonight at 7; Ritz 5 at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.