Guillermo Arriaga didn't invent nonlinear storytelling, but he's made it something of a specialty in his work.
In his scripts for director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu on films such as Amores Perros,Babel and 21 Grams, Arriaga sliced and diced narrative in a variety of ways - from Amores' retelling of the same story from different perspectives to 21 Grams' jigsaw-puzzle intensity.
So it's no surprise that he would do something similar with his directorial debut, The Burning Plain. In perspective drawing, parallel lines appear to converge in the distance; so it is with Arriaga's storytelling. Moving back and forth in time and from locale to locale, Arriaga quickly makes it apparent that seemingly parallel lines - from different times and locales - will actually intersect before the film is over.
All of his storylines deal with women - specifically, with mothers and daughters. That's a nice change from a cinema dominated by father-son dynamics. In particular, the film focuses on three women:
Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is an unhappy restaurant manager (owner? It's unclear), first seen crawling out of bed from a lover (John Corbett). She's the picture of efficiency at work, but also a little bit reckless. She's seen bedding a handsome customer, pairing off with him in front of Corbett, who turns out to be the restaurant's chef. But she's obviously got other problems, given that she's secretly a cutter as well.
The second is a teen, Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), whose mother has just died, killed ignominiously in a love-nest fire that consumes her and her illicit lover. Now Mariana is being stalked - out of curiosity about their parents - by Santiago (J.D. Pardo), the son of the dead man in the affair.
The final woman is Gina (Kim Basinger), the dead mother. She's seen as a competent, bored housewife, the parent of four, already deeply involved with the married Nick (Joaquin de Almeida). As she slips away for clandestine meetings with him, she has her husband snowed but can't help feeling (accurately, as it turns out) that her daughter Mariana is suspicious.
When is self-destructive behavior an act of self-preservation - and when it is just an excuse for behaving badly? Is it ever possible to escape the past? Or is it always the case, as Paul Thomas Anderson wrote in his film Magnolia, that "you may be finished with the past, but the past isn't finished with you"?
The Burning Plain played at Toronto last year and is just now being released. While its structure lacks the element of surprise of Babel or Arriaga's other writing - "Oh, this again" summarizes the response of some critics I know - it packs an emotional punch that's undeniable. You may be ahead of the curve in figuring out the connections between the characters and the storylines, but that doesn't mitigate the depth of feeling the film captures. Inevitability doesn't subtract from the power of fate.
Part of that is the spare, straightforward writing. But a larger part must be credited to the emotionally naked performance by Theron, an actress who knows how to reveal herself without making a big deal of it. It's a showcase role, but not a showy one.
The same is true of Basinger, who brings a subtext of pain and confusion to a character devoted to hiding those same qualities. Basinger is a restrained actress whose still-daunting beauty doesn't mask her ability to let us read her thoughts.
The Burning Plain is immensely satisfying story-telling, and a film in danger of being lost in the rush of fall releases. Don't let it get away from you.
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