Like many of writer Guillermo Arriaga’s works, The Burning Plain is delivered with a non-linear narrative. You’ve seen it before in a film like 21 Grams, but here, Arriaga steps in the director’s chair as well, debuting with a complex but not necessarily difficult to understand film. Sure, the unconventional narrative structure is initially jarring, but adapt soon enough and eventually things get a little too predictable, right up until the final “reveal,” which is easy to call about mid-way through.
Unfortunately, this type of narrative makes it hard to remember exactly which events unfolded in what order, and what might or might not be considered a spoiler. For instance, chronologically, a major explosion that kills two people would be a major twist in the middle of the film, but here it’s revealed in one of the first scenes. we know that certain people die way before we likely should, and that takes away something, I find. When we watch their stories, we know exactly how they’re going to wind up. The only remaining question regards the “why,” although it’s not entirely surprising once you find out.
Since the first scene in The Burning Plain involves Charlize Theron’s character, Sylvia, let’s start there. She works as the manager of a restaurant, and in her spare time, she lets whoever wants to have his way with her. Again, the “why” is brought up. Why, exactly, would someone as successful as she is be so easily taken advantage of? You’ll find out by the end of the film, don’t worry. Eventually, she gets involved with a couple of Mexican people, one of whom is a twelve-year-old girl whose father, we see in a flashback, was severely injured in a plane crash.
In another story, we have a young man named Santaigo (J.D. Pardo), whose father was recently killed in an explosion. He tells his friends that the woman he was cheating on his wife with also died. What caused the explosion? Again, it’ll be revealed later on. He ends up in a Romeo-and-Juliet relationship with Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), whose mother was the person his father was having an affair with. The two families hate one another, but the teenagers don’t care.
However, we also get to see some of life before the explosion, in which we see how the affair began which involved Nick (Joaquim de Almedia), Santiago’s father, and Gina (Kim Basinger), Mariana’s mother. We see Mariana and Santiago both before and after the explosion, and at times, it’s a little confusing as to when we’re watching them. Most of it gets cleared up as they seem to live their lives dedicated solely to feeling bad about their parents’ deaths and mentioning it at every possible point.
We jump back and forth between all of these different storylines that I can understand some viewers wanting to give up on the film before it has a chance to settle in. Eventually, it gets predictable as to which story we’re going to be heading to next. I’m not sure if it ever actually established an ABCA pattern, but it certainly felt like it. Once you get used to it, you can focus on the reveals that occur in every scene. It’s like a puzzle in which you don’t have the box for. You have to just trudge through until everything is revealed.
Unfortunately, this means that many individual scenes don’t carry that much weight. For instance, when we finally see the explosion, it doesn’t carry too much of an impact even though two people just died. That’s almost subverted due to another character’s reaction, but let’s allow that to be a surprise, shall we? We watch other scenes just so that we can learn more about the mystery, but not to be involved. Perhaps a second watch is required for the emotion to come through.
In fact, I think that a second viewing is required. If not for the emotional connection, but to see things in a different light. Take the cheating couple for example. Are they really as terrible as we’d initially judge them to be. You should hear the tirade that Santiago has in his first scene when describing both his father and the woman he was with. Having that as an introduction to their plotline is manipulative on the part of our writer/director, as it puts that thought into our head before we’ve even met them or the circumstances behind their love. Watching it again, you know things that the character doesn’t, and his rant no longer influences your opinion.
With that said, I think that a lot of tricks were used in an attempt to keep us from discovering too much before The Burning Plain wants us to, and that feels wrong to me. For instance, listen for how many times we hear characters’ names. It’s not that often, maybe only once in some cases. The film doesn’t want you to know them, and it almost acts as an unreliable narrator at times. It’s trying to hard to shroud itself in mystery with both its non-linearity and things like hiding facts from us, and it can wear on you. I only wonder what a chronological cut of The Burning Plain would look like, and the effect it would have on an audience.
The Burning Plain is the type of film that you need to give four hours of your life. The first two are used to absorb the film’s plot, learn all of the mysteries it has to present, and get used to its non-linear storytelling method. The final two are to completely dissect it, and form more of an unmanipulated opinion. If you’re not willing to give it that, it’s not worth your time. If you are, and you don’t mind non-linear stories, then The Burning Plain is an absolutely worthwhile journey.