Oregon restaurant manager Charlize Theron, prone to submissive promiscuity and self-inflicted violence, sits naked in bed next to her lover. A decade or so earlier, an abandoned trailer in the middle of the New Mexico desert blazes the title into being. In the fractured, self-impressed screenplays of Guillermo Arriaga (Babel, 21 Grams), events unfold out of time and space, effects before causes. Arriaga engages us not by playing out human complexities, but by using rim shots that reveal how each jigsaw piece fits into his puzzle. (Gee, will that little blonde girl in the desert grow up to be Charlize? Does she cut her thighs to punish herself for something discovered in the final act? Better keep watching.) The writer's most successful works—The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Amores Perros—were bolstered by directors who brought genuine emotion to the screen, but The Burning Plain marks Arriaga's behind-the-camera debut, and his obviousness is staggering. The present tense rains down in gray-blue melancholy while the past comes sun-kissed in orange, and the sensational pop-psychological damage wrought by two generations onto a third carries all the dramatic heft of a telenovela, albeit one with award-bait cinematography.
Theron sorts the jigsaw pieces.
Opens at Harvard Exit, Fri., Sept. 18. Rated R. 111 minutes.