Award-winning screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga uses a convoluted narrative structure to tell a tale of love, betrayal and regret in The Burning Plain, his directorial debut. Arriaga opens the film with a shot of an old trailer in the middle of the desert burning to the ground, and he then proceeds to bounce around among several seemingly disparate characters, Babel-style, before finally bringing it all together in the film's final act.
The film stars Charlize Theron as Sylvia, a composed-but-icy manager of a fancy Portland, Oregon-area restaurant who spends her spare time having empty, emotionless sex with a wide array of men. Arriaga takes us back and forth from gray, rainy Portland, where Sylvia lives, to the New Mexico desert; early on we learn that the burning trailer, when it exploded into flames, was occupied by Gina (Kim Basinger), a white married housewife with four kids, and Nick (Joaquim De Almeida), a Mexican-American man, also married with kids.
Gina's daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) and Nick's son Santiago (J.D. Pardo) are drawn together as they struggle to deal with their parents' infidelity and death, much to the consternation of their respective families. Also tossed into the mix are a crop-duster pilot, his best friend, and his young daughter, whose lives are thrown into disarray when the pilot's plane crashes.
There's not much more I can tell you about the plot without giving away the fulcrum around which the storyline revolves, but I can tell you how the film works (and doesn't work) overall. Arriaga, like a gifted storyteller spinning yarns around a campfire, likes to slowly unravel his stories and leave it to the viewer to survey the pieces and see how they all fit together. Whether you view this method of storytelling as fascinatingly complex or annoyingly contrived depends, I suppose, largely on what you expect from a film, and whether you believe films that don't adhere to a more traditional narrative structure are merely conceits of the author, rather than experiments in translating the art of storytelling into a cinematic media.
A friend with whom I saw The Burning Plain said after the film that the way he judges a film like this: If you took the non-linear storyline and put it into a linear model, would it still be as interesting? That's one way to look at it, but another way to look at it is this: Does the convolution of the storyline into a non-linear format improve the story? Does it make it more intriguing? Does it serve the purpose of drawing you into the story in a way that the same events in a linear format would not? The answer to those questions for The Burning Plain is yes ... and no.
Arriaga wrote the scripts for critically acclaimed films directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) and Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada); he's an excellent storyteller, but where he gets into a bit of trouble as a first-time director is that he gets so wrapped up in telling the story that he somewhat detracts from conveying that story in a visual medium.
The pacing of the first half is tediously slow, and while this was probably a deliberate decision on Arriaga's part, it does have the effect of dragging the film quite a bit at the beginning, to the extent that a lot of viewers may not stick with it to see the payoff. The film would clearly benefit from some tighter editing in its first act. Arriaga takes his time getting around to revealing character arcs and motivations as well. It's pretty much like that through the first two-thirds of the film: you're sitting there puzzling, "Why this? Why that?" and while things do pay off in the end, it's just distracting to be trying to sort all that out while also absorbing what's going on in front of you. I almost want to see the film again, now that I know how it ends, because I think I'd likely appreciate watching the film more for knowing how it plays out.
The film benefits greatly from a couple of particularly solid performances by Theron and Basinger. Basinger's both tragic and infuriating as the wife shutting out her family while having a passionate affair, but we don't know why or how Nick and Gina meet or why they're drawn into a love affair that leads to such catastrophic consequences. Perhaps Arriaga intended it that way, but without that knowledge, the affair has the feel of a being nothing more than a vehicle for getting the story going and, hence, contributes to the structure feeling somewhat contrived.
Theron's performance is rock-solid, and the motivations for why her character acts in particular ways do, at least, end up being clear by the end. She brings a remote, minimalist style to portraying Sylvia that reminded me in some respects of Kristin Scott Thomas' performance in I've Loved You So Long, another film playing here at Toronto. Both actresses play women who have been deeply scarred by some sort of trauma, and while Thomas is getting the Oscar buzz (and deservedly so), Theron's performance here is just as carefully understated and haunting.
I do have to give kudos to Arriaga for not loading his script with clunky exposition; although there are issues with the pacing and structure of the film, he does more showing than telling, and with this particular story that's not an easy task. Arriaga is a talented screenwriter, and with his debut effort he shows promise as a director as well. This time around, he was learning on the job; he'll grow and refine his strengths, learn from his missteps, and keep writing and directing. The Burning Plain is good, not great, but it's worth watching to see the growth of this fine writer as he makes the shift into directing. You can see, watching this film, the potentially great filmmaker he has the talent to become.