Guillermo Arriaga’s last project was the highly acclaimed “Babel”.  On that, he was the screenwriter.  His latest foray (after public disputes with “Babel”‘s director) was his directorial debut —  “The Burning Plain.”  Much in the style of his other works, this one plays more with time and linear storytelling than with disparate tales.

Set alternately in Seattle, Albequrque and Mexico, it marries the meandering tales of a cropduster and his daughter, a young teenage girl and her adulterous mother, and a beautiful young woman overcome by depression and self-loathing.  Told in a parallel manner (and therefore concealing everyone’s connection until later), it explores how deeply we affect others and the ripples of consequences we cause.

The interweaving lines are well connected and repeating symbology (scars, for example) are carried out.  Arriaga’s weakness, or at least not his strength just yet, is getting great, vibrant performances from his actors.  Kim Basinger plays the mother of three who is stepping out on her trucker husband with a handsome Mexican who makes her feel like a woman again.  Basinger’s performance is good, but there is no strength behind it.  The same is true of Charlize Theron‘s lead.  She does a perfectly fine job — dark set eyes, emptiness behind them — but there is no soul.  It is because the characters are well-written and played that it all hangs together.

All in all, this is a fine, well-crafted debut for Arriaga behind the camera.  Ultimately, he needs to find a verve, an energy that propels the film to add to his other obvious assets.

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