SCRAMBLED PLOT SEQUENCES are kind of Guillermo Arriaga's thing. Having made his name primarily as a writer (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Babel), it's little surprise that his directorial debut, The Burning Plain, showcases his signature nonlinear approach to storytelling, with several seemingly unrelated plot threads that eventually reveal their interconnectedness. Plain—which was partially shot in Portland—performs this trick like a well-trained gymnast, going through the motions in a borderline obligatory fashion. But by now, Arriaga's audience knows how to play these games too, and as puzzles go, the answer isn't a particularly hard one to see coming. The tormented characters and determinedly somber subject matter turn up some interesting scenes and characters, but the final reveal's impact doesn't come off as tremendously as was no doubt intended.
In separate threads, we meet Sylvia (Charlize Theron), a depressed restaurant manager (those familiar with local geography will be unhappily distracted by the fact that this car-less character's apartment is near the west end of the Broadway Bridge, while her restaurant overlooks the crashing waves of the coast) who throws herself pell-mell into the arms of men. Meanwhile, Gina (Kim Basinger) and Nick (Joaquim de Almeida) carry out an adulterous, doomed affair that will bring together her intense daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and his intense son Santiago (J.D. Pardo). Finally, a crop duster also named Santiago (Danny Pino) crashes his plane, and his daughter Maria (Tessa Ia) is unhappily packed off to find her mother.
These people and timelines are all tied together under big themes of utmost gravitas, and a strong cast delivers compelling characters (including promising breakthroughs from Pardo and Lawrence) whose lives are interesting enough to maintain reasonable curiosity. But these cards have simply been played (and not just by Arriaga) far too many times, and to far more powerful effect; Plain can't help but look a bit pale in comparison.