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The Burning Plain

You may not recognize the name of Guillermo Arriaga but you’re probably familiar with his work. The Mexican novelist wrote the screenplays for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s films Amores Perros, Babel, and 21 Grams. His feature debut as a director is similar to those in that it presents a story of human tragedy with a non-linear time structure and with characters whose relationships only gradually become clear. I usually like these kinds of film, although that may only be because I have a short attention span. But the Iñárritu films are all compelling for the way the nontraditional presentation heightens the impact of the story. In this case, though, it only serves to drag out an implausible and melodramatic tale: If you didn’t know that this was his standard working method, you might suspect that Arriaga was simply trying to disguise the weaknesses of his script. Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger anchor two main threads, the first as a restaurant hostess whose life is a haze of one-night stands, the latter as a married woman having an affair with a Mexican man. Granting that Arriaga wants to keep us somewhat disoriented until he starts to pull his threads together, I think the film is more confusing (intentionally or not) than it needs to be: We get so little information about where things are happening and when that it keeps us from getting involved with these characters in any way. Giving the joylessness of their lives, though, that probably wouldn’t happen had this story been laid out in a linear way. (It takes place in New Mexico, Portland, and Mexico, all filmed in ways unlikely to make the tourist boards of those places very happy.) Working with two excellent cinematographers Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and John Toll (Braveheart), Arriaga has a sure command of the cinema frame, to the point that I felt at a disadvantage watching the film on a screener DVD. In the end, though, it’s still just a gussied-up soap opera with a lot of heavy-handed symbolism about characters I didn’t enjoy spending time with.

m. faust

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