The Burning Plain
Directed by Guillermo Arriaga
As a lukewarm fan of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga's, I couldn't help but watch with much trepidation as New York Times and now At the Movies film critic A.O. Scott triumphantly dismissed The Burning Plain, Arriaga's directorial debut. To recap for those that haven't already praised Scott for really socking it to an easy target: Scott scrambled up the order of the sentences in his review to mimic the way Arriaga's scripted films, like Amores Perros and Babel, present multiple narrative arcs out of chronological order. After having seen The Burning Plain, I can't help but feel that Scott missed the forest for the trees. Arriaga's scaffold, which Scott dismissed as gimmicky and pretentious, is not at fault—the problem is what he doesn't do with it.
The Burning Plain is a snoozefest because it is what many unjustly accused his better work of being. Arriaga starts with a promising hook that is most involving when the connection between its various plot threads is most unclear. Gradually, however, what once looked like an exciting lure turns into a piddling, self-important payoff about the cyclical nature of familial mistrust and dissatisfaction.
The pleasure of watching Arriaga prop up his various narratives against each other comes from how that juxtaposition invites you to treat each recurring motif as a potential clue. Arriaga's method is a weird kind of brashly nuanced storytelling, that treats experiential details like evidence to a crime whose solution is not as important as the close examination of its parts. The problem is, because that lure can overshadow the plot points they gruffly accentuate, Arriaga has to come up with convincing solution to the story's problem. Otherwise, he looks more like Dan Brown than Dasshiell Hammett.
Both of Arriaga's better collobarations with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu—Amores Perros and Babel—were less grandiose in their character-defining details and hence less frustrating in their moralizing. Without Inarritu's keen eye for sensuous flourishes and with a fundamentally weaker script, featuring some of Arriaga's most flat dialogue, The Burning Plain is just too obvious to be worth taking seriously.
Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger play two generations of sexually frustrated women confronted with the fact that they're escaping from their problems by sleeping around. Gina (Basinger) is liaising with family man Nick (Joaquim de Almeida) while Sylvia (Theron) brushes aside her co-worker and boyfriend John (John Corbett) so that she can pick up any man she meets. We meet both women at the point where they start to second-guess themselves and at least one of them strives to break out of her vicio—yawn—out of her vicious cycles of self-abuse. Guileless, ain't it?
The complexity of Arriaga's plot cannot mask its lack of thematic complexity—if anything, the film is too overt in connecting Gina and Sylvia's actions—but it doesn't try to. It's just a blunt means of juxtaposing the two storylines, and an effective one at that. The best parts of The Burning Plain, which is sadly a series of diminishing returns, is the fleeting sense of mystery that its puzzle structure begins the film with. Here, Arriaga provides canned suspense, to be sure, but the film's flashback-flashforward order is only as gratifying as the content it shapes.
Opens September 18