Thursday, October 22, 2009
NHFF: The Burning Plain (2009) A Film by Guillermo Arriaga
Predictions of what a filmmaker's next project will be like are hardly ever more accurate than when dealing with the work of writer Guillermo Arriaga. His last three screenwriting endeavors, each a collaboration with fellow Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, have been downbeat emotional collages that link three seemingly disparate stories into one powerful, if contrived, comment on the interconnectedness of the modern world. With The Burning Plain, Arriaga has for the first time taken his shot at the director's chair, and little has changed. He is still working in the same territory, and for that alone he should not be criticized; it's not so much a "safe zone" as it is a unique way of seeing the world, just as Bela Tarr should not be hammered for making a seven hour epic in slow-take black and white and then moving on to three more similar films, or Ingmar Bergman for making different variations of the same themes throughout his prolific career. At the same time, something tells me Arriaga's conjunctive narrative style is getting particularly old, that the mode he has chosen gives him considerably less flexibility, perhaps even that he is consciously forcing stories together to fit this mold.
While this may be true in general, I do not suspect this to be the case with The Burning Plain. Something about it speaks of greater personality; Arriaga seems closer to the work, and understandably so, considering he wouldn't have taken the initiative to direct had he not felt he could bring something more inspired to the film than what another individual (Iñárritu?) could. The film takes us back to Arriaga's favorite landscape dichotomy: that of the untamed, expansive desert and the bleak modern suburban life, in this case the difference between New Mexico and Oregon. Also, he has predictably fallen back on his same tick of triangular storytelling, spontaneously shuffling between the three points of interest. There is the story of Sylvia (Charlize Theron), an exhausted, guilt-ridden waitress in Oregon who engages in meaningless sex with various men as a way of coping with her troubles. Similarly ashamed is Gina (Kim Basinger), a married woman who maintains a secretive affair with a Mexican man whom she meets in a dilapidated trailer in the middle of nowhere behind the back of her unknowing family, although her coming-of-age daughter Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence) is suspicious and proactive. We also meet Maria (Tessa La), a young girl whose father becomes severely impaired in a plane accident, causing her to search with her father's friend for the mother she never knew, who happens to be Sylvia.
Because Arriaga's mechanics are so refined at this point, his editing so invisible when shifting stories, one perceives the story as all taking place during the same time. However, temporal dissonance is one new element that Arriaga embraces with The Burning Plain. Revealing how it occurs would spoil the film, as it is meant to provide a startling revelation towards the end, but credit is due to Arriaga for refraining from providing too many clues to make the unveiling predictable. Still, this is not to say that it is some surprise twist that gives the film integrity. Arriaga significantly downplays this moment, and the film continues for approximately thirty minutes after, steering it away from an impermanent entertainment and more towards an emotional character study that feels fully vested in. And when I say fully vested in, an important distinction must be noted; that does not mean the drama is overemotional and bloated, as is often the case in Iñárritu's Babel, but rather that it is carefully observed. Only once does Arriaga resort to the "crying montage", and it is considerably less painful and prolonged than in the past.
The drama only gets tiresome for its continuous gloominess, not for any lack of realism. Arriaga clearly lost his funny bone a long time before he had the opportunity to write his first script, and it often times results in an awfully one-sided view of the world. Sylvia's life is deliberately depressing in every nook and cranny, from her relentless job - where most of her ostensible "friends" work - and even to her own bedroom, both settings stripped entirely of warm colors resulting in a dingy palette loaded with cold blues and grays. You would also be hard-pressed to find an instance of Theron smiling during her gripping and unrelenting portrayal, one that requires her to lay bare the conventions of the movie star in the same way she did for Monster (2003). Basinger plays her mirror image, a woman who has more structure to her life but who suffers from the same inner anxiety, physically manifested in the constant glaze of sweat that covers her skin. The New Mexico desert she frequently inhabits becomes a barren nothing, grim for its muted colors, detached compositions (courtesy of There Will be Blood cinematographer Robert Elswit) and the double-crossing, eventually horrific events that take place there.
Instead of providing comic relief, Arriaga takes pauses between dramatic longeurs with streams of nondescript imagery. Ultimately, this is what separates Arriaga and Iñárritu directorially, and what gives The Burning Plain more of a calmer, contemplative tone. Arriaga's camera will settle on a pack of black birds lifting off from the ground, or an empty plain situated between two mountains. Yet its atmosphere is stifling, tinged with the feeling of inevitable tragedy caused by a lava flow of troubling choices that the character's make. The film has so far received horrid critical reviews, but they seem to be missing this calculated mood. While Arriaga may be having a fun time jostling the audience around narratively, the effect is actually quite appropriate for a film dealing with regrets and claustrophobic lifestyles, of actions being the result of selfishness rather than compassion for others.