It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"The Burning Plain” involves events perhaps 20 years and 1,000 miles apart, with many of the same characters. Told chronologically, it might have accumulated considerable power. Told as a labyrinthine tangle of intercut timelines and locations, it is a frustrating exercise in self-indulgence by writer-director Guillermo Arriaga.
He is familiar with intercut storylines. Teaming with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, he wrote “Amores Perros,” “Babel” and “21 Grams,” three splendid films that moved among people and places. They were all different characters, and it was clear where everything was happening. That made it easier. And the human drama in each place had continuity and integrity; the story strands might even have been reassembled as self-contained short films.
In “The Burning Plain,” his first feature film as a director, Arriaga should have asked harder questions of his screenwriter, himself. I don't know if it's a spoiler or just merciful assistance to tell you that many of the characters we see are the same people at different times in their lives, and that some of the men at different ages are hard to tell apart.
Certainly a time comes when you figure that out for yourself — before, I hope, the movie belatedly relents and makes it clear. Given the Law of Economy of Characters, you eventually realize that there would be no need for separate stories apparently destined never to meet. You can see there are two main locations — New Mexico and Oregon — and you decide that years must have passed, although the visual cues (cars, clothes) don't provide clues.