I remember once reading an article about a technique with which author William Burroughs experimented: He’d scissor a manuscript or magazine story into strips, toss them in the air and piece together a new work reflecting the random pattern in which the scraps had landed. Something tells me that Guillermo Arriaga read that article, too.
The Mexican screenwriter has made a name for himself doing, for all practical purposes, the same thing repeatedly in his scripts for films such as Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. He’s popularized a sort of cinematic dyslexia; nearly all his work is characterized by chronologically fractured story lines that also zigzag haphazardly through space. Each picture’s tale could just as effectively have been told employing a traditional, straightforward style, but Arriaga has preferred to dice them into scrambled jigsaw pieces and fit them back in place as we watch.
To various degrees, his experiments have yielded impressive results under the guidance of gifted directors. What distinguishes The Burning Plain is not its narrative discombobulation but the writer’s decision to direct. Who knows what kind of film his script might have become with the benefit of a second creative intellect in a position to override Arriaga’s tendency toward writerly self-indulgence? Denied that artistic oversight, it became the moviegoing equivalent of an endurance test.
The viewer is expected to put up with a lot for the nearly two hours it takes Arriaga to get to his point. The story, a festival of forlornness, chronicles the misfortune of two families over the course of three generations, although Mensa members are likely to connect the familial dots long before most members of the audience do. Others will struggle with a narrative that offers almost no visual cues to clue us in to the timeframe in which events are unfolding. As a result, it’s possible to watch successive scenes featuring different actors without realizing until late in the picture that they’re playing the same character. This is a movie that in places makes Synecdoche, New York look like “Sesame Street.”
Kim Basinger is a forlorn New Mexico housewife having an affair. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawrence is her daughter. She’s forlorn because she discovers the infidelity. J.D. Pardo plays the son of Basinger’s lover. He becomes forlorn after the unfaithful pair burns to death when the trailer they couple in one day bursts into flames. In a distant place and time (present-day Oregon), Charlize Theron is the forlorn manager of a chic seaside restaurant. On her breaks, she stares out at the ocean and punishes herself by slashing deep cuts into her thighs. After work she has sex with strange men. But forlornly.
What is Theron’s connection to the forlorn New Mexico family or, for that matter, to a forlorn young Mexican girl (Tessa Ia) who has recently crossed her path? More pertinent questions might be: Will you care all that much when you find out? Will the revelation have justified sitting through 111 minutes of unrelenting heaviness? And could one motion picture about human behavior possibly contain more examples of human behavior that are preposterous and totally implausible?
I suspect most people who see The Burning Plain will answer those questions in the negative. Additionally, I hope Arriaga has learned the only lesson his foray behind the camera has to offer: Next time he’d be wise to hold that director’s chair for somebody who knows what they’re doing.