Important symbols are scattered through this film, which opens in theaters nationwide on Friday after spending about a month as a video-on-demand insomnia cure. Sometimes birds take wing and soar through the sky, though they can also be killed by slingshot and roasted on a makeshift grill. There are physical scars that characters display (or inflict on themselves) to make manifest the pain within.
The action swings back and forth in time and place, gathering apparently disconnected scenes into a big, doughy ball of significance. In Oregon, an unhappy restaurant hostess named Sylvia (Charlize Theron) smokes cigarettes and stares at the waves crashing against the rocks before heading indoors either for a shift of work or a bout of sad, empty sex. An unshaven, nervous-looking fellow (José María Yazpik) seems to be stalking her.
Meanwhile a blond woman (Kim Basinger) is having an affair. Before her transgression, or rather as a consequence of it, the trailer where she and her lover (Joaquim de Almeida) have their trysts goes up in flames, killing both of them. One of his sons (J. D. Pardo, who will grow up into Danny Pino) and one of her daughters (Jennifer Lawrence, who will grow up into Ms. Theron) make eyes at each other, and pretty soon they’re dating. By which there is meant killing birds with slingshots and taking turns burning significant scars into arms. In due course, they have a baby.
Eventually, all the mysteries are solved, which is not to say that the movie ever comes close to making sense. It looks terrific, thanks to Robert Elswit’s cinematography, which captures the dust of New Mexico and the damp of Oregon. But the elliptical structure of the narrative can’t cover up its overheated, half-baked banality.
Critics call “The Burning Plain” a multistranded, chronologically fractured story of loss, guilt, betrayal and general moroseness. They note that in fact, the assignment has already been completed, in the form of Guillermo Arriaga’s screenplay. Like his scripts for “21 Grams” and “Babel,” this one makes heavy use of happenstance and temporal displacement, and like them, too, it depends on ideas about human behavior that can only be called preposterous.
As for acting in “The Burning Plain” critics call it "merely serious", according to NewYork Times' review.