Cause harm repeatedly to most parts of the body and they eventually grow desensitised, calloused and indifferent to the pain over time. This dispassionate, earthy and very dry aesthetic that film-maker Guillermo Arriaga applies to the world of his first major directorial outing is king; between the barren desert landscapes that permeate within the backdrops of his strangely distant and out-of-sync characters and the sparse narrative that intertwines it all together, The Burning Plain views life as a series of scars—cold and unrepresentative of the pain that brought them to the surface, but a firm reminder as such that nothing ever quite goes away, no matter how far you run. For the characters of Arriaga's story, a central catastrophe of sorts serves as the unfortunate catalyst that will bring them all together whether they like it or not. A burning trailer, housing two lovers sharing a passionate affair behind their families back, exploding in a rage of flames seemingly caused by accident. For them, the movie opens with their death thus absolving them from living with their irrevocable actions, but for those they leave behind the past stays as a constant and dictates largely how each of their futures will develop.
Serving as a somewhat humbled character piece that centres on a small group of intertwining stories between the two conflicted families, The Burning Plain is an unassuming and dry landscape of drama. For the majority of the feature, the movie is split between three narratives, most of which take place over different timelines told in a back-and-forth manner which informs but never confuses the viewer as to where each of these characters are going, and where they have been. This multi-layered and contorted style that Arriaga implements here can obviously get a little confusing at times, yet enough care is taken to allow each of the stories to have their own breathing room. As a result, the characters which take centre stage feel nicely developed and human—something integrally important to a story such as Arriaga's. In the end, while it seems that some plot developments never seem to be heading to any sort of meeting point, there exists a sort of catharsis and closure to the movie that ties everything together nicely, but perhaps too nicely. The ending is somewhat dubious, but nevertheless feels like the logical step when taken in retrospect.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, a central theme to Arriaga's feature here is the suppression of emotion—of a cool, collected and strangely alien approach to relationships with other people. While there are plenty of moments where the director opts to balance such instances out with moments of palpable passion (most of which occur between the two burning lovers), the dominant motif here is that callous and introverted sense of misdirection and ambivalence that plays such a major part in a few of the central characters' stories. The performances then, which can be hard to grasp on to as a result, nevertheless do well to keep things human without ever sacrificing that uniquely cold tone. This isn't a feature that will immediately grasp you with its story or characters, and the performances from the cast are very much the same. Instead The Burning Plain opens up as it goes along, eventually climaxing in a series of finely performed expulsions of emotion. It is in this final act that much of Arriaga's story comes together and pieces fall into place, so it's appropriate that much of the movie's most cathartic, and warmer shades transpire here.
For The Burning Plain to truly come off the screen however, one has to feel for the characters that dominate the screenplay from the get-go, which unfortunately is not the case. While it is certainly evident that Arriaga's crafts an interesting and somewhat unique presentation to an otherwise familiar story thanks to his callous approach to much of the proceeding drama, the movie too often falls a little short of its intended destination thanks to the overly cold opening and unsurprising ending. The result is a feature which definitely succeeds in offering two hours of finely plotted drama, but which also fails at making any more of an impression. The characters are compelling in their own strange way, the narrative complicated but not to the extent that all hope is lost—for those two elements alone I could recommend The Burning Plain to viewers and that's not even taking into account the performances and imagery in twine. In the end however, Arriaga doesn't quite reach where he tries to; The Burning Plain is and enjoyable and rewarding experience, but it lacks the extra zest needed to carry it on through to something more profound and memorable.
- A review by Jamie Robert Ward (http://www.invocus.net)