Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Overachievers: The Burning Plain

Sometimes you're in the mood for a movie that you think will expand your mind, awaken your awe, and introduce you to the furthest reaches of what cinema as a medium can accomplish.

And sometimes you're just in the mood for a good howler.

Last night, when my wife went to bed early, I was in the mood for a good howler. And Guillermo Arriaga's The Burning Plain jumped out from our Netflix instant queue and asserted itself to me as a movie likely to satisfy that yearning.

I had heard that it was simply awful. Whatever review I'd read left me with the impression that it was characterized by histrionics and a total lack of subtlety in imparting its message. Bad acting was certainly also implied.

It really isn't so. The movie is surprisingly subdued; it could sooner be accused of being too quiet than too loud. And each of the central trio of actresses (Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger and Jennifer Lawrence) brings real subtlety and emotional honesty to a complicated character.

The other way I expected it to fail is that it's supposed to be a prime example of a played-out type of filmmaking called "hyperlink cinema." Not familiar with this term? I myself only became acquainted with it about a month ago. Hyperlink cinema refers to films that feature multiple seemingly unrelated narratives, which gradually weave together to reveal connections between characters that often rely in some way on fate. At their best, films structured this way can seem fresh and compelling. At their worst, hyperlink movies seem to derive all their supposed cleverness from the mere exercise of linking the characters together. Many films in this genre exemplify the genre at its worst. (The reason they're called hyperlink movies is because if you clicked on a highlighted link in one area of one story, you could get to the other story, and back again, even though the stories don't seem to have an overt relationship at the time you're doing the clicking.)

Arriaga, director of The Burning Plain, has written several prime example of hyperlink cinema, many of whose narratives felt fresh when we first saw them: Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. I'm a big fan of the first, I'm not a big fan of the second and I expected to dislike the third but actually ended up liking it pretty well. But even though Babel itself was an overachiever for me, I now see it as kind of the prototypical example of hyperlink cinema, with stories taking place in Mexico, the Middle East and Japan, yet somehow still claiming a narrative connection once all is said and done.

By the time Arriaga debuted as a director on The Burning Plain, we were all hip to this type of movie and had long since stopped finding it compelling. Perhaps Arriaga's resume alone caused viewers to come into this one full of suspicions and doubts. And in fact the plot synopsis itself reveals that the movie is comprised of four seemingly disparate narratives.

But that, too, I found misleading. There are really only three different stories that at first seem unrelated, but they give up their connections to each other earlier in the narrative than you necessarily expect for a hyperlink movie. In the stereotypical bad hyperlink movie -- say, Crash -- the connections among the characters is the big reveal in the third act, the big Shyamalan twist that's supposed to (but so rarely does) create that "Oh shit" moment.   
The Burning Plain is mature enough not to even manipulate you into that kind of big moment. When the connections between the stories are revealed, it's in the form of a dawning realization -- a mention of a character's name from one story who you realize is mentioned in the other story, that kind of thing. The movie doesn't stop to show you just how smart it thinks it is. It just rolls on and respects your ability to absorb the natural flow of the story. It helps that the story actually flows in a natural rather than supernatural way, relying very little on obvious bits of cleverness but instead on logical, organic connections between the characters.

So why did that one review I read rake Arriaga and this movie over the coals?

I figured I must have read the dismissal in Entertainment Weekly, so I tracked down Lisa Schwarzbaum's D+ review of the movie online -- all 99 words of it. Which didn't really prove all that helpful in the end:

"Kim Basinger plays a sad married mom in New Mexico who screws around — until her dreams go up in smoke. Charlize Theron plays a sad single woman in Oregon who smokes and screws around. The two ladies are linked, but to find out how, you must wade through The Burning Plain's intentionally disorienting narrative shuffles — the signature storytelling tic of Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Babel), here making his unsteady directorial debut. The scenery (prettily captured by There Will Be Blood cinematographer Robert Elswit) is littered with heavy symbolism (fire! rain! dead birds!); the performances are merely heavy." 

I guess it's yet more proof that if you carry a bias against a movie just because you read one bad review of it, you are probably giving that one critic too much credit.

Look, I'm not saying you should go rush out to see The Burning Plain. I'm just saying that if you come to it looking or a good howler, you will be disappointed.


Nick Prigge said...

I remember hearing or reading someone who gave this a glowing review quite awhile back. Can't remember for life of me who that was or where I read it but I put in the Netflix queue and it's still sitting there. I need to move back up the chain apparently.

I too just became familiar with the term Hyperlink Cinema. But I like the ring of it.

Vancetastic said...

"I put it in my Netflix queue and it's still sitting there." There may be no better description for a Netflix queue. I think when we've all had Netflix queues for a decade, we will still have things on there that we put there when we originally filled up the queue. That would make an interesting post sometime -- those stale titles that you just can't delete because you KNOW you will EVENTUALLY watch them. In my house it's even worse because I'd say there are a good 30 to 40 titles where one of us has seen it but the other hasn't -- and in some cases, we don't even know if the other person ever intends to see it. But there's just something so FINAL about removing it permanently, isn't there?

I too though the phrase "hyperlink cinema" was particularly apt.