The time shifting interwoven character drama, in which multiple discordant storylines merge into a coherent whole, is the primary characteristic of the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu and longtime collaborator Guillermo Arriaga. Together, the men perfected the form in Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Its potency waned in Babel, the film that appears to have irreparably fractured their relationship.
With The Burning Plain the form can be pronounced to be, if not officially dead, on its last bit of life support. What once seemed like a fresh and exciting method of storytelling, an offshoot of a mode popularized by Robert Altman and others, has become impossibly trite. Written and directed by Arriaga, the film cuts back and forth over more than a decade, weaves its way through two concrete settings and winds up at a place heavy on symbolism and melodrama but empty on ideas.
Charlize Theron stars as Sylvia, proprietor of a high-end Portland restaurant and a miserable sex addict prone to random encounters, public nudity and self-immolation. She jumps from one man to another while a mysterious third individual (José Maria Yazpik) follows her across town. In another subplot, set in South Texas, a married mother named Gina (Kim Basinger) has an affair with a married father named Nick (Joaquim de Almeida). In the third subplot, Gina’s eldest daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) strikes up a friendship with Nick’s son Santiago (J.D. Pardo) and in the fourth a daughter watches as her crop duster father crashes his plane while on the job. These blend together in a fashion that stretches credulity long past its breaking point.
For a picture like this to work there must be some sort of grand unifying force that keeps the audience connected throughout the jumping around. Be it an unexplained mystery, sheer emotional energy or a heightened sensationalized aesthetic that pull to stay with the filmmaker on his journey cannot be compromised. Unfortunately, Arriaga hits one tonal register throughout The Burning Plain: sheer misery. From the angst-ridden Sylvia to Gina’s somber affair the entire film unfolds in a haze of depression, overloaded with crying and forced dramatics that prove so overbearing they come across as manipulative rather than earned.
In addition to that influx of trite emotion Arriaga’s work is hampered by its total absence of naturalism, as realized in the characters’ propensity for acting as dictated by the plot rather than their deeply felt motivations. Much of the film seems driven by the dreams of a storyteller on a too desperate quest for cross generational lyricism, for promulgating the sort of heightened connections of a fable at the expense of those derived from an organic place. The imagery, too, spirals overboard, literalizing what should remain abstract (i.e. there really is a burning plain on display), and the camera lingers too long on intense, misty-eyed close-ups.
Yet the writer/director successfully imbues the extramarital affair at the heart of the film with a strong sense of the destructive inevitability of such ventures. From the dusty side roads on which they meet and the abandoned trailer in which they carry out their affair, to the inconvenient moments in which they’re drawn together, it’s clear that the pair risks all for these clandestine consummations of their love. The material demands the tempering of Arriaga’s predilection for multi-part storytelling and the forgoing of the age-old “sins of the parent visited on the child” conceit. It’s not hard to recognize that the heart of The Burning Plain is the story of two adults with separate lives driven together on a path to destruction. One wonders how the filmmaker could have missed that.