Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga’s directorial debut shares much in common with his three scripts for director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, not least in terms of its fractured storyline and damaged and disaffected characters, but is arguably a much simpler, less flamboyant, more affecting drama. And, as before, several seemingly disparate storylines coalesce into a filmic whole that packs a sizeable emotional punch once the various connections are fully revealed.
Charlize Theron is Sylvia, the joyless manager of a swish coastal restaurant in wet Portland, whose glamorous, poised exterior only just disguises her seething inner turmoil and a deep self-hatred as she sleeps around and self harms. Meanwhile in New Mexico, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Santiago (JD Pardo) the teenage children of housewife Gina (Kim Basinger) and Mexican Nick (Joaquim de Almeida) respectively who died in a trailer explosion while having an affair, begin their own relationship as the film flashbacks to show their respective parents’ illicit liaisons.
As the plot shuffles back and forth both in time and location between sunny New Mexico and rainy Oregon, with events in one strand affecting those in another, Arriaga slowly reveals his narrative hand, namely the connection between the numerous storylines although, if you’re paying attention, it won’t be too hard to guess ahead of time.
While some have called the story soap opera-ish (perhaps a little), others have taken issue with the structure, complaining that the film wouldn’t have quite the same impact if told linearly, although, as with his work for Inarritu, it’s the telling as well as what’s being told that matters to Arriaga. And in that he’s helped immeasurably by a uniformly excellent cast, but particularly the performances of his leading ladies Theron, Basinger and newcomer Lawrence, all of whom should, by rights, find themselves nominated for this, as well as exquisite cinematography from There Will Be Blood Oscar-winner Robert Elswitt (abetted by John Toll who shot the Portland scenes) who transforms the arid desert landscape into a character of its own.