The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Review
In this, his feature directorial debut, Tommy Lee Jones plays it clever in taking on a weighty script from Guillermo Arriaga, and employing a seasoned cinematographer of the outdoors in Chris Menges. He also takes a leaf from early Clint Eastwood in building the film around his own sturdy central performance, and in the laconic, stetson-hatted Pete Perkins, he creates a new archetype of middleaged, Old West-style machismo.
Three Burials is a present day western, set in the Texas/Mexico border country and finding in the harsh beauty and lawlessness of that landscape parallels to other superior and similarly gritty films such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. It crosses borders on genre too, having the feel of a road movie on horseback, a kind of masculine Thelma and Louise, with two protagonists wedded together on a madcap journey of redemption. As one would expect from Guillermo Arriaga, the writer of Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Three Burials carries a strong authorial stamp, playing out as a fable of unnecessary death and the complex, almost Biblical rituals of punishment and atonement required of those involved.
Pete Perkins is a cattle rancher whose sympathy towards 'wetbacks' - Mexican illegal immigrants - is evident in that he speaks fluent Spanish and treats them like human beings, in marked contrast to the institutional racism of others. Pete gives newcomer Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo) a job, and they become close friends, chasing girls together and sharing secrets. Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) is a border guard from Cincinnati, settled in the area with his young wife Lou Ann (January Jones). Norton is not above using violence in the course of his work, breaking the nose of a wetback girl who is trying to escape, and incurring the disapproval of his boss Capt. Gomez (Mel Rodriguez), who takes a more philosophical attitude towards escapees - 'Somebody's got to pick strawberries.'
When Melquiades is found dead, shot through the chest at long range and buried in a shallow grave, Pete demands an investigation, but local sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) isn't about to work up a sweat over a dead Mexican. To Pete's chagrin, he orders Melquiades' second burial and closes the case. Pete then takes the matter into his own hands and eventually discovers the culprit - Norton. He makes Norton pay, but not in the way we would expect from a conventional revenge movie.
As in 21 Grams, these events are not presented chronologically, but the switching back and forth in the timeline is not nearly so confusing as in that earlier film, and fragmenting the structure works well in telling this particular story, drawing out the poignancy with flashbacks of Pete and Melquiades' good times together. Different elements of the shooting incident are scattered throughout the early part of the film, and we see it Rashomon-like from the viewpoints of both Melquiades and Norton. This is very effective in conveying the shades of grey in how it happened - more a combination of misfortune and boneheadedness than real malice.
Melquiades' third burial comes about as a result of his wish, expressed to Pete, that he be laid to rest in his hometown in the event of his death. It therefore provides a framework for Pete to both do right by his buddy and humiliate Norton at the same time. So two men and corpse set off into the dawn, and Norton is progressively broken on the wheel of the Mexican landscape like some medieval penitent. When Pete finally snaps, it is a believable emotional leap, and when the hapless Norton finds he is, against expectations, in deep trouble, he finally comes alive. The acting and interplay between Jones and Pepper is marvellous in these scenes, pitched at just the right level, never slipping into melodrama. Their ensuing adventures in desert, caves and isolated homesteads are superbly captured by Chris Menges' lens, and the final arrival in Melquiades' homeland has the quality of an evaporating dream, with a subtle twist that lends everything a more human edge.
Tommy Lee Jones' direction is mostly competent, and Three Burials doesn't have that directed-by-an-actor feel we know so well. One could argue that the middle of the film feels a bit loose and unfocussed as it trawls through the swinging habits of the locals. Also a more experienced director would have shown us less of Melquiades' decaying body, recognising the pitfall of B movie unconvincingness in that area. But these are minor quibbles, easily forgiven in the light of the overall quality of the piece. With its occasional stretches in Spanish and bilingual intertitles, flagging up each burial, Jones' debut is surefooted in its idiosyncrasies, and it finally succeeds in being both genuinely different and uniquely moving.