Somewhere in Guillermo Arriaga’s three-film run with director Alejandro González Iñárritu—2000’s Amores Perros, 2003’s 21 Grams, and 2006’s Babel— Arriaga’s achronological, everything-is-connected screenplays lost their originality and surprise, and started to become more like shtick. Now absent Iñárritu’s considerable filmmaking chops, Arriaga’s directorial debut, The Burning Plain, sinks into full-on self-parody, slogging through themes of guilt and redemption with joyless, artless determination. Arriaga always rankled at the credit Iñárritu received for their collaborations, but Arriaga’s leaden touch behind the camera is a reminder of how much Iñárritu’s flair for montage and visceral conflict gave the scripts a necessary jolt of urgency and emotional force. Without him, it’s long, dead-eyed stares aplenty.
Holding to the puzzle structure that has long been Arriaga’s stock in trade, the film’s bifurcated plot turns on a tragedy that echoes through past and present. The mysteries of “Who’s who?” and “Who did what when?” are easy to unravel, but Arriaga asks viewers to wait two hours to confirm what they already know. In the meantime, there’s Charlize Theron as an icy restaurant maître d’ from Portland who spends her off hours punishing herself for past sins by engaging in desultory sex and cutting the inside of her thighs with rocks. Her misery ties into a couple of affairs that have a devastating effect on the families involved: one between a middle-aged white woman (Kim Basinger) and a sensitive Hispanic in a New Mexico border town, and the other between her daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) and his son (J.D. Pardo).
What must it be like to hang out with a Guillermo Arriaga character? Between the crying jags and the self-mutilation, are there some chuckles, too? There’s nothing wrong with Arriaga’s seriousness of purpose per se, but the characters in The Burning Plain are so narrowly defined by tragedy that they reveal no other facets of humanity. Since the revelations hidden within Arriaga’s intricate, multi-pronged narrative are obvious from the first reel, most of the film marks time in the excruciating wait for one extremely large shoe to drop. And once it does, the moment isn’t sad or cathartic or redemptive. It’s more like watching a wounded animal finally get put out of its misery.