Whereas his previous screenplays were male-driven, The Burning Plain stands out for having three women at the center of things: Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is a restaurant owner who, despite what appears to be a relationship with one of her employees (John Corbett), is deeply unsatisfied and spends all of her free time smoking cigarettes and sleeping with other men; Gina (Kim Basinger) is your typical housewife, except she's survived breast cancer and is cheating on her husband (Brett Cullen) with a Mexican man named Nick (Joaquim de Almeida); Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), Gina's daughter, is probably the most messed up of the three, especially after she starts dating Nick's son Santiago. And finally, remaining on the female front, there's also a little girl, Maria, who travels from Mexico to the United States with a family friend to find her long lost mother.
As always with Arriaga, these stories are linked by a tragic event: in Amores Perros and 21 Grams it was a car crash, while in Babel it was a gunshot wound. This time, the connection, though not that obvious, is a burning trailer seen in the first scene of the film. The twist is that the writer/director has gotten more ambitious in telling yet another human tragedy: instead of having a geographic separation between the three plot strands, like he did in Babel, he goes for the most classic of choices, namely time shifts, only those aren't proper flashbacks, and therefore, as one can expect, it takes a while before all the pieces fit together. By choosing this narrative solution Arriaga is trying to tell us he can do just as fine a job as his former collaborator Inarritu behind the camera, but it's hardly a surprise to find out he doesn't always succeed: being a first-time director, he prefers to keep things safe with a classic style rather than adapting some of Inarritu's tricks (most notably the chromatic link between character and mood) to his own vision. And it must be said that a more experienced filmmaker would have known how to avoid the emotional flatness that comes from the few scenes (two or three at the most) where Arriaga panders to the genre's most idiotic clichés (three words: hospital, coma, confession).
Overall, however, the narrative is very solid, and having learned a valuable lesson from his past creative partners Arriaga has set up a cast that doesn't really include any big names (Theron notwithstanding) but delivers a string of compelling performances: the most touching turns come from Basinger, always good when playing vulnerable, damaged women, and de Almeida, whose tenderness comes off as a real surprise given his fame (in the US at least) as rough crime lords in Desperado and the third season of 24. Lawrence pulls off her tricky role with a maturity that justifies the Mastroianni Award (i.e. Most Promising Newcomer) she won at the Venice Film Festival. Cullen, Corbett and Danny Pino impress despite the limited screen time at their disposal, and Theron, still partially recovering from the Aeon Flux fiasco, portrays Sylvia with the kind of understated intensity that characterizes her best work.
Verdict: if you were unmoved by Inarritu's films, this is not for you. Otherwise, give it a try: it's not as mesmerizing as 21 Grams, but in its best moments it comes close enough.