Guillermo Arriaga’s writing style is familiar by this point, and you know what you’re getting into even before you get it. Over the past 10 years, he’s made a name for himself writing sprawling ensemble pieces such as Babel and Amores Perros, films that cross borders and flux backwards and forwards through time without warning. Some viewers may find his approach maddening, but at the end of the day Arriaga is doing what a screenwriter does best: deciding when and how an audience should receive information. In 2005, his screenplay for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada gave us a complex narrative that, when unraveled, was revealed as a somewhat quaint western—a quietly sentimental rumination on friendship and loss. In his feature debut as a director, Arriaga presents The Burning Plain, the unraveling of which reveals nothing more than an old-fashioned melodrama.
At the outset, we are introduced to five main characters and what seem to be five separate stories. Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is a hostess at a fancy restaurant in Oregon and spends all her free time in bed with strange men. Santiago (Danny Pino) is a crop duster, who brings his daughter Maria (Tessa Ia) on trips with him. Gina (Kim Basinger) is an unhappy mother having an affair in New Mexico, where a young Mexican boy grows interested in her teenage daughter. And there’s the bonus sixth story of why a mobile home is on fire in the middle of the desert. Eventually, they’re all going to come together, but revealing how and when would be spoiling the fun.
I absolutely loved putting the pieces of the story together; the film’s disjointed narrative functions as a mystery and I refused to let the truth be unveiled before I could figure it out for myself. Who’s going to meet who? Which part happened first? Oh boy!
Of course, this approach to the film isn’t going to work for everyone, and for the rest of you, the individual scenes perform admirably enough on their own to be worth watching—even if you have no idea why you’re watching them. The acting is commendable, most distinctly in Charlize Theron and young newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, both playing women hell-bent on escaping their respective sins. Visually, Arriaga wrenches the most out of the New Mexico landscape by employing frequent P.T. Anderson cinematographer Robert Elswit, and Oregon is suitably dreary. There’s no doubt, the film looks good.
Where The Burning Plain starts to falter is when all the pieces connect—the puzzle you worked so hard to put together lays solved on the table, and you realize: this isn’t the Sistine Chapel on the box; it's just a picture of McDonald’s. A third act wrought with tired clichés such as hospital bed confessions and teary-eyed apologies betray the often subtle nature of the rest of the film. Arriaga has gussied up a rather bland drama of guilt and tragedy by concealing its histrionic nature until the last third of the film. While such a ‘cheat’ is not uncommon to his oeuvre, this marks the first time the talented writer’s style has overshadowed the actual writing, leaving us with a sour taste and a film that ultimately disappoints.
Cross-published on Twitch.