Up until then the Mexican writer's signature style had appeared desirably different, but critics baulked at the way he apparently connected up four stand-alone narratives using a wayward hunting rifle. I detected deeper thematic links in Babel, but I can still see why many saw this as a gratuitous exercise in worthiness.
Here, in his directorial debut, Arriaga gives us three more interdependent storylets, strung between two timelines and two locations (Portland Oregon and New Mexico) and effectively requests viewer involvement in plotting out the seams between them.
We both found this process strangely engaging and successfully guessed the major who's whos, what's whats and when's whens in advance of Arriaga's scripted reveal. Crucially we also anticipated the role of one of the characters in the central event of the umbrella plot, and this made the last third of the movie perhaps a little less absorbing, as it clearly wishes to stop some way short of a sentimental, redemptive conclusion, but has really nowhere else to go.
The more serious charge against Arriaga would seem to be that he has taken a fairly standard, soapy melodrama and infused it with false profundity by jumbling up its sequences. Roger Ebert goes so far as to suggest that it would have made a far better story if Arriaga had not so willfully followed Jean-Luc Goddard's famous dictum that a film needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.
Personally, I don't mind stylistic tics in scribblers. All the best writers have them. And in this instance I do think Arriaga is after something more than structural effect, for when chronology flows as we expect it to, we tend to perceive the wood of story in advance of the trees of the moment and its own poetic truth.
Arriaga also knows that we get to know the stories behind the people we know in a less than strictly sequential fashion. Others may get irked when his characters stare into the middle distance contemplating events which we may only learn about later, if at all, but I'm yet to be seriously bothered by it, and in the case of The Burning Plain, the stimulus to curiosity was for the most part highly involving.
PS: The version we saw had Spanish subtitles that had clearly been compiled by someone with a sock stuffed in each ear. At one point 'That's Mexico...' was rendered as 'That's my school...', a line that made absolutely no sense given the expanse of empty borderland being indicated at the time, but the translator clearly pressed ahead with this unlikely hunch anyway.