- The Washington Times - Friday, September 18, 2009

Intertwined, nonlinear storytelling has become the trademark of Guillermo Arriaga - so much so that the unconventional is in danger of becoming a convention.

The Mexican screenwriter shot to fame with “Amores perros” and went on to make two more acclaimed films with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu: “21 Grams” and “Babel,” the latter earning him an Oscar nomination.

His directorial debut, “The Burning Plain,” is smaller in scope than “Babel” but much more emotionally wrought. Here, his particular way of telling a story never feels like a gimmick but rather the only way to give some idea of the pain and miscommunication behind its central women’s actions.

Those women are played by Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger, two beautiful and talented women who aren’t afraid to get dirty for a juicy role. Miss Theron is Sylvia, a Portland restaurant manager who eases her past pain by engaging in no-strings-attached affairs (including one with a cook played by John Corbett). We sense that past might become present when we notice she’s being followed by a foreigner, one who rejects her advances after giving her a ride home one night.

Miss Basinger is Gina, a wife and mother in a border town embarking on a very strings-attached affair with a Mexican (Joaquim de Almeida). We discover early that they die together in a fire, but the film rewinds to show the liaison’s beginnings. Her husband is oblivious to the fact his wife has fallen in love with another, but her daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) has figured it out and becomes a hidden stalker herself.

There’s no point revealing more than this, though the solutions to the multiple mysteries at the heart of the film become apparent long before the finale. The attraction isn’t so much the plot as the emotion, which its two female leads communicate with an intensity that never goes over the top.

“The Burning Plain” is a dark drama, but one that offers hope - if you’re willing to wait for the story to untangle its way to its natural end.

TITLE: “The Burning Plain”

RATING: R (sexuality, nudity and language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Guillermo Arriaga

RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes

WEB SITE: burningplainmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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