'The Burning Plain': Smithereens, By Kurt Loder

Charlize Theron on the reassembly line.

I think everybody likes a good WTF movie — remember "Memento"? But director Guillermo Arriaga, who specializes in this sort of thing as a screenwriter ("Babel," "21 Grams"), has scrambled the narrative of [movie id="357151"]"The Burning Plain,"[/movie] his first feature, to no very interesting purpose. It's a beautifully made film, with a couple of arresting performances; but it's so solemn it almost puts itself to sleep, and so pointlessly disjointed you kind of wish it would take a nap.

There's a nice tingle of inscrutability right at the beginning, when we meet Sylvia ([movieperson id="183155"]Charlize Theron[/movieperson]), the manager of a sleek cliff-top restaurant on the Oregon coast. Sylvia is clearly dragging around a heavy burden of woe, which she attempts to lighten by sleeping with any man who comes within hailing distance, and occasionally by gouging her thigh with jagged stones. She's being followed about by an equally morose-looking Mexican stranger, whose name, we later learn, is Carlos. Carlos has no interest in sleeping with Sylvia, even after she asks him to, but we don't learn that till later either. So that's that, or them, for now.

The first of the movie's many jumps takes us to New Mexico, where an older woman named Gina (Kim Basinger), is conducting an adulterous affair with an affable older guy named Nick (Joaquim de Almeida) in a shabby house trailer out in the middle of a vast grassy plain. Since the movie opened with a long shot of this very trailer going up in flames, we fear for these two. Gina also has some scars, which we also learn about later. (The picture's scar motif, you'll be unsurprised to know, is earnestly metaphorical.)

I think we can sail through all of the subsequent plot cuts that start piling up here. We meet Gina's teenage daughter, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), who knows her mom's having it off with Nick; and we meet Nick's teenage son, Santiago (J.D. Pardo), who wants to have a word or two, and possibly more, with Mariana. There's also a 12-year-old girl named Maria (Tessa Ia), and her father, a handsome crop-dusting pilot named ... Santiago. Not to mention her father's partner, whose name is ... Carlos.

By this point, we're wondering not only what is going, but when. The movie's slice-and-dice structure would feel justified if the story were a mystery (again: "Memento"), and if in looking back on it we could marvel at the skill with which it had led us to a climactic revelation. But "The Burning Plain" is a story about love, loss, tragedy — the stuff of straight drama. It's not a mystery, and the narrative fractures seem arbitrarily imposed.

That said, the picture is gorgeous to look at. Its two Oscar-winning cinematographers, Robert Elswit ("There Will Be Blood") and John Toll ("Braveheart"), the first shooting in New Mexico, the other in Oregon, have created majestic widescreen panoramas of rocky coastline and sunbathed desert (as well as an exhilarating airborne sequence), and their interior compositions are impeccably weighted and subtly detailed. Charlize Theron, an effortlessly charismatic actress, may be getting too skilled at the sort of pinched distress she's called upon to provide here; but Jennifer Lawrence, who's still only 19, brings to the project a dark, haunted beauty that's the most memorable thing in the film. A shame, then, that the movie itself is otherwise too labored to merit much in the way of recall.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt," "Whiteout," "The Informant!" and "Jennifer's Body" also in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "The Burning Plain."

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