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The Burning Plain review

How can Charlize sleep when the bed is burning?

Celebrated scribbler of twisty, tortured tales Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, Babel ) takes his first steps as director with yet another of his trademark head-spinners. Here he’s cooked up a tense and atmospheric, if slightly plodding, melodrama. It shuttles intriguingly between two New Mexico families linked by a trailer fire that kills an adulterous couple and a mysteriously miserable beauty in Oregon . It’s a (ahem) slow burn movie, without the self-conscious Big Themes of 21 Grams or Babel , but with their agonisingly convoluted structure.

Veterans of Arriaga’s wait-and-see plotting will sit happily through a two-time-frame shuffle which slowly but resonantly runs together both the love affair and the joint obsession with the fatal infidelity that the lovers’ respective teenagers Mariana and Santiago cook up. And Charlize Theron’s fabulous, dead-eyed performance as Sylvia, the Portland restaurant manager hell-bent on trashing her life with promiscuity, reels you in regardless of its enigmatic quality. But when the movie sprouts a fourth plot, in which a crop-sprayer’s plane crash transforms his young daughter’s life, the ‘what-the-fuck?’ alarms start going off. Often, all that really animates The Burning Plain is the superb playing-out of Mariana and Santiago ’s nervy, pervy and dangerous game, lit up by Jennifer Lawrence’s teen heat.

It’s hard not to pine for Arriaga’s longtime collaborator Alejandro González Iñárritu’s breakneck pacing and startling visuals. Arriago’s direction feels too stripped down, too enslaved by the stories it’s plaiting deftly, but draggily. Sure, he’s still maestro of the multiple storylines/one big reveal genre. But he makes the rookie mistake of hammering his theme of redemptive love into the film like a tent peg. To get a movie blazing, it takes more than a handful of hot performances and a burning bed.

Kate Stables

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