Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu dissolved their partnership in part over a dispute about which one deserved the most credit for their three collaborations (2000’s Amores Perros, 2003’s 21 Grams and 2006’s Babel), and after seeing Arriaga’s directorial debut, The Burning Plain, I think I can safely say that he was responsible for the worst aspects of those movies. Plain will be recognizable to anyone familiar with Arriaga’s past work: It’s a dour, heavy-handed drama with intersecting stories told in a jumbled chronology, emphasizing the ways that people are connected to each other, sometimes unexpectedly (for them, not generally for the viewer).
The problem with Plain is not just that Arriaga has done this sort of thing before, but also that he does it with such leaden solemnity here. By his third go-round with Inarritu, the formula had already become more than a little stultifying, but Inarritu at least brought an occasional bit of lyricism to the didactic stories, or coaxed some interesting performances out of his actors. Arriaga just sets his cast on mope, with nary a smile present, and the actors slog through the misery as best they can. The normally luminous (even in serious roles) Charlize Theron plays a depressed restaurant manager in gloomy Oregon (perhaps she has Seasonal Affective Disorder?) who’s haunted by some dark secret and being followed around by a mysterious man. Meanwhile (or, y’know, possibly sometime earlier or later) in New Mexico, Kim Basinger is a frustrated housewife carrying on an affair with a married man, and her teenage daughter (Lawrence) is spying on her dalliances.
The movie opens with the burnt-out shell of the trailer where Basinger and her lover perished in a fire, so already Arriaga is moving agonizingly slowly toward a predetermined outcome. The fractured timeline is at first disorienting, and then frustrating, as Arriaga draws out the conclusions that astute (or even not-so-astute) viewers have already made. Cinematographer Robert Elswit shoots some lovely images of the coast of Oregon and the deserts of New Mexico, but the fussy drama contained within them is completely inert.