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The Burning Plain

Love Can Be Messy

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

The Burning Plain is ambitious. Coming from the Guillermo Arriaga, writer of Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros, that’s a given, though. However, this is Arriaga’s directorial debut, having broken the tie with collaborator/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Ironically, it’s not the direction that hinders The Burning Plain but the writing. It’s merely a great idea that he wasn’t fully able to realize.

Besides ambition, Arriaga is also known for his non-linear, multi-story films and this one is no different. Straddling the American border it simultaneously unfolds the tales of a recently deceased adulterous pair, the friendship two of their children find in the aftermath and a tortured woman who’s being sought out by her estranged daughter. While having a modus operandi can work again and again for a filmmaker, this time it seems to hinder Arriaga’s work.

The main characters feel disjointed and one-dimensional while many threads are left hanging. At this point it becomes necessary to ask if this story is best served by being told non-chronologically. It’s tough to answer that question here without ruining any spoilers, and yet while many will feel the ending is a great payoff, much of the film is frustrating up until this point.

His past films were an amalgamation of multiple stories and while it wasn’t always clear how they all fit together, each story was able to thrive on its own. In The Burning Plain two stories are blatantly connected while a third is not, making it feel uneven. All comes together during a “twist” ending (if you can call it such) but the journey should be just as interesting as the prize at the end. The Sixth Sense and Fight Club have two of the greatest twist endings in recent film history, but we’re so invested in the story already that the end is a “twist” merely because we don’t see it coming.

That twist only adds another layer onto what transpired up until that point and these two elements now co-exist to bring the story to an end. Perhaps Arriaga’s M.O. immediately sets the expectation of such an ending but the ending is necessary not only in understanding how these stories connect but in why we should care about them in the first place.

It’s okay if we don’t understand how the pieces fit together but each piece should engage us on its own. Unfortunately for this film, Arriaga is unable to truly figure out how to do that, and when you’re telling multiple stories simultaneously keeping a tight lid on each one is of the utmost importance. The end does rectify much of the tediousness that preceded it, but Arriaga needs to engage the audience before his big reveal, otherwise no one will care.

Charlize Theron offers the film’s greatest performance and Kim Basinger, as the cheating mother, also puts forth her best foot, but the material ultimately doesn’t do their characters justice. Arriaga proves he has the eye to make the jump to director, but it feels as if he sacrificed part of his writing talent to get there.