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'The Burning Plain' a skillful mesh of stories

Guillermo Arriaga's directorial debut brings together damaged yet disparate characters into a startlingly unified whole.

September 18, 2009|Gary Goldstein

If, after his scripting of such uniquely structured and deeply complex human dramas as "Amores Perros," "21 Grams" and "Babel" (as well as the fine "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"), there was still any doubt that Guillermo Arriaga was one of the most innovative screenwriters working today, "The Burning Plain," on which he also makes his feature directorial debut, should cement that reputation.

Powerful, profound and beautifully rendered, "The Burning Plain" plays like a good novel that was superbly adapted for the screen, the kind one might read and wonder whether it was just too multilayered and emotionally resonant to survive that often-dangerous transition off the printed page. Arriaga's latest work is another trademark juggling act of seemingly unrelated stories, time frames and characters, whose parts will deftly intersect in masterful, unexpected ways.

Charlize Theron portrays the pivotal Sylvia, a beautiful but clearly damaged restaurant manager who's sleeping with a married co-worker (John Corbett) but available to any man who shows interest; particularly, it seems, strangers. Her world will irrevocably shift, however, when someone from her buried past suddenly shows up in need of the kind of support the painfully detached Sylvia may be incapable of providing.

Then there's the story of Gina (Kim Basinger), a New Mexico mother of four and cancer survivor whose passionate affair with the also-married Nick (Joaquim de Almeida) has tragic consequences that, for better or worse, will bond Gina's teenage daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Nick's stalwart son Santiago (J.D. Pardo).

Finally, in Mexico, an earnest young girl (Tessa Ia) witnesses her dashing crop duster father (Danny Pino) go down in a plane crash, setting off a chain of events that will, by the film's midpoint, startlingly unite the first two scenarios.

Arriaga so skillfully metes out the details of each story that once the disparate puzzle pieces come crashing together you don't feel had -- as is often the case with these kinds of tricky setups -- but, instead, enormously impressed. That the second half of the film not only maintains the initial momentum but actually builds and deepens as the story threads fully unfold is as much a testament to Arriaga's precise, well-calibrated direction as it is to his richly absorbing script.

Performances by Theron and Basinger, along with the rest of the ensemble cast (which also includes Brett Cullen as Gina's conflicted husband and Jose Maria Yazpik as the interim guardian of the crop duster's daughter), are uniformly excellent.

Put this one on top of your list.



'The Burning Plain'

MPAA rating: R for sexuality, nudity and language

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Language: In English and Spanish with English subtitles

Playing: In selected theaters

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