The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
2005, R, 121 min. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, Melissa Leo, Vanessa Bauche, Levon Helm.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 24, 2006
Don't let the near-impossible-to-remember title keep you away from this singular and slightly surreal Tommy Lee Jones scorcher. In his feature directing debut (although 10 years ago he did direct the fine made-for-TV Western The Good Old Boys), Jones has made a modern Western in the culturally askew tradition of Peckinpah, Huston, and Boetticher. Set amid the West Texas landscape with which he is so personally familiar, Jones’ film can be as vast and as harsh as its surroundings, as precise and indelible as a branding iron. Jones, who also stars in Three Burials, received the Best Actor award at Cannes, while the film’s screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) received the Best Screenplay award. Three Burials is also filmed with unwavering clarity by acclaimed cinematographer Chris Menges (The Good Thief, Dirty Pretty Things). However, it’s almost as if the sunbaked clarity of the film’s images provide an appropriate balance for the sometimes murky motivations of the characters. Jones and Arriaga have brought to life some distinctive characters, none of whom by the film’s end seem to be all good or all evil. Most are some variation of the expression one uses to describe Pete Perkins, the character played by Jones: a goddamn crazy SOB. Pete, however, is an SOB with a code of ethics, which is part of what connects him to that lineage of the great, twisted Western directors of yore. The movie is an account of Pete’s promise to his friend – a Mexican cowboy named Melquiades Estrada, who works for Pete at his ranch – to bury him back in his native soil of Mexico in the event of his death in America. And before you can say Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Pete is off with Melquiades’ rotting corpse to cross the Rio Grande and bring his friend home to his final repose. Pete is not alone on this journey: He has literally lassoed along the unwilling Mike Norton (Pepper), a recently-relocated-from-Cincinnati border patrolman, who accidentally shoots and kills Melquiades (and hastily performs the title’s first, shallow burial). Like Arriaga’s 21 Grams, Three Burials jumps around in time as it tells its story in a way that sheds more light on the characters than the plot. The first half of the film is spent in the Texas border town as Pete tries to ferret out the truth about the death of Melquiades, a narrative that the sheriff (Yoakam) is completely uninterested in pursuing. Racism and complacency taint most of the characters, though Mike, the new transplant, reveals an aggressive bent toward the border-crossers and his dim wife, Lou Ann (January Jones). She watches soap operas all day, while he spends his time (on and off the job) “reading” Hustler. The second half of the film recounts Pete and Mike’s fitful journey to Mexico, during which Pete crudely teaches Mike the hard facts of his version of frontier justice. Mike is physically abused by Pete, and the stinking, ant-ridden cadaver is embalmed with antifreeze cadged from a strange and blind old coot played by ex-Band member Levon Helm. There’s also Rachel, the multifaceted character played by Leo, who’s tremendous here as always. The movie concludes in Mexico with Melquiades’ third burial, but not before information is revealed that makes even the nature of the laborer’s final wishes suspect, lending a sort of omniscient last laugh to the events we have witnessed. In a just world, it would be filmmaker Tommy Lee Jones having the last laugh.