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Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The (2005) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 14 December 2005
Tommy Lee Jones makes his directorial debut with this wry, sensitive and tough modern-day Western set on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. As a director, he’s as clear, controlled and laconic as he is as an actor; it’s hard to believe this careful, effective movie is the work of a first-time director.

This won awards at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, but Sony Classics is virtually sneaking it into release. Granted, it’s not the kind of film that’s going to develop long lines at the boxoffice, but still the studio should have had more faith in it than to give it a stealth release.

The script is by Guillermo Arriaga who wrote “Amores Perros,” and who is apparently a long-time hunting buddy of Jones, one living in Texas, the other in Mexico. They ranged back and forth across the border on their hunting trips, and both eventually realized that people on both sides of the border were a lot more alike than they are different—and that’s one of the major points of this sardonic but wistful story.

Jones drifts back and forth in time as he introduces his characters, but after the midway point, the story becomes a straight-ahead story, the tale of the journey of the body of Melquides Estrada, and the two men who are trying to find his final resting place.

“The Three Burials” is something like Sam Peckinpah in a melancholy tone; it’s not violent, but it’s grimly humorous and in love with the Texican landscapes as well as the tough people who manage to live there.

Jones is Pete Perkins, an aging range boss who became friends with illegal immigrant Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo). The much younger Mel impressed leathery old Pete with his honesty and sincerity; it doesn’t take Mel much effort—though it takes some—to get Pete to agree, if Mel dies in Texas, to take him back to the idyllic Mexican town where his wife and children live.

We also meet Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) and his wife Lou Ann (January Jones). They’re high school sweethearts from the Midwest who’ve come to Texas for Mike’s new job as a Border Patrol officer. He takes to his duties with eager brutality; it’s not that he hates Mexicans, particularly, it’s that he’s just so full of gung-ho macho urges that the job fits him all too well. He even punches a young woman trying to cross the border.
His home life is marginally better. He’s the kind of crude lout who pares his toenails in the living room, who casually screws his wife from behind with so little effect that she doesn’t stop watching her soap opera. She herself is bored silly; there’s not very much to do in this dried-up little town, and she takes to hanging out at a local hash house where she’s befriended by Rachel (Melissa Leo), the salty, middle-aged wife of the owner. Lou Ann’s had a long-time affair going with Pete, who wants her to leave her husband for him, but nothing doing.

Out in the desert, Mike’s looking at a sex magazine and preparing to beat off when he hears a rifle shot. He grabs his own gun and returns fire—and kills Melquiades, who was just shooting at a coyote menacing his small herd of sheep. Mike’s horrified at his actions, but mostly because he fears being caught out, although the local law enforcement isn’t concerned about the death of a mere Mexican.

Eventually, from what Rachel and others say, Pete figures out who killed Melquiades. He ties up Lou Ann, kidnaps Mike and forces him to dig up Melquiades’ now twice-buried body. On a couple of horses with the body slung over a mule, Pete doggedly heads into Mexico with the frightened, reluctant Mike. He believes Pete when he says “Yew scream agin, I’ll kill yew.”

But the journey is different than Mike—or we—are expecting. They find a lonely, blind old American (Levon Helm) out in the middle of nowhere in a run-down cottage, listening to Mexican radio and forlornly waiting for his son to return—though he’s sure he won’t. They also encounter a few Mexicans standing around a wrecked pickup, watching American shows on a TV hooked to the truck’s battery. Escaping briefly from Pete, Mike is bitten by a rattlesnake; the only person around who can help is the same woman he slugged earlier.

Mike is initially a dislikeable, even detestable cranky cur of a guy, but he gradually changes as he goes on this disquieting journey with determined Pete. And Pete himself learns more about himself—and Melquiades—than he was expecting.

It’s one of those movies that can be described as rough as a cob; it’s bleakly humorous, especially regarding the deteriorating condition of Melquiades’ body. In Peckinpah’s “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” Warren Oates was another American entrusted with (part of) a Mexican’s decaying corpse, and “Three Burials” has some of the intensity of that underrated movie.

I think Jones must have been paying attention on the sets of all those movies he’s made over all these years, because technically “Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” is extremely well crafted, particularly in terms of the sound and sound editing. The desert scenes are never entirely quiet; there’s usually a little wind blowing, a few animal cries. But the sound is used beautifully throughout, and very important to the impact of the film—which is considerable.

Jones, unsurprisingly, is excellent in a role clearly designed for him to play. He’s as leathery and worn, and as reliable, as an old saddle, even in these days of SUVs and ATVs, more at home on a horse than off. We never learn anything about his past; it might be that he HAS no past, just the same eternal present, getting older in a world he views as unchanging. His dialogue is spare and to the point, and Jones knows exactly what to do with this kind of material. It’s one of his best performances.

Barry Pepper is initially a cold, uncaring, self-involved jerk, concerned about nothing but himself, not even his frustrated wife; he doesn’t even notice that she IS frustrated. But the difficulties of the journey and Pete’s clear-eyed focus on the task at hand gradually wears away Mike’s rough edges. He learns by doing. Pepper is a very serious actor, very dedicated to his craft, and this seriousness and dedication are entirely appropriate to this role.

It’s a tale of moral courage, determination and what it might mean to keep a promise—especially a promise that the person invoking it never thought would have to be kept. At the end of the film, Mike is a better and more responsible person, Pete is still something of a mystery. But we’re better, and more entertained, by having taken this journey with them.

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