Around the release of Babel, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga none-too-subtly suggested that he was the true auteur of his collaborations with director Alejandro González Iñárritu. As if to prove his authorial heft, Arriaga loads his own game of fatalistic scrabble, The Burning Plain, with engorged versions of his trademark woe-is-humanity tropes: fractured narratives, damaged gringos aching for redemption, and Mexican sufferers so saintly that one actually turns down a soaking wet Charlize Theron in a half-open peignoir.
The mirror-image wounded blond birds are Sylvia (Theron, crying a river), a doleful Oregon restaurant manager with a yen for bedding strangers only to punishingly lacerate her skin afterward, and Gina (Kim Basinger), a New Mexico housewife who finds carnal-spiritual refuge with a sensitive immigrant worker (Joaquim de Almeida). To reveal more would spoil the time-hopping hijinks of Arriaga’s connect-the-wretches diagram; suffice to say that a pair of star-crossed youngsters (J.D. Pardo, Jennifer Lawrence) lend an intergenerational angle to the cause-and-effect barriers separating the characters, while an angelic stalker (José Maria Yazpik) is shoved in as mediator.
Humorless and sanctimonious, Burning Plain groans with shoddy ironies and overbearing serendipity: Divided between sterile K-Marts and sun-parched fields, the world here is a stark playpen for anguished and vengeful globs of human Play Doh. The same rigged platitudes could be found in Amores Perros and 21 Grams, though González Iñárritu’s pulverizing, no-bell-left-unrung direction at least guaranteed some visceral reaction even to those who loathed those films’ facile determinism. By contrast, Arriaga’s technical inertness guarantees only a better look at his strained bag of tricks, along with a full view of the emperor’s bare ass cheeks.