The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada Review

Often in the dead of night but occasionally underneath the hot midday sun, small groups of Mexicans cross north over the border in the United States. Their progress watched by the uniformed Border Patrol, whose own days are often spent alone and in the desert, some still get through, taking up low-paid or manual jobs in Texas, where they hide out from the law. Each footstep behind them could be the Border Patrol catching up with them. Few men are to be trusted, white men fewer still.

One patrolman is Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), who moves to a small town in Cibolo County with his young wife, Luanne (January Jones). Dedicated to his job, Norton spends each day looking out over the border country with his only distraction being a pornographic magazine. With his wife bored, lonely and taken to spending her days drinking endless cups of coffee in the diner, Norton loses himself in his work, becoming jittery in the long silences in the desert. Quick to throw a punch and not short of insults, Norton takes an increasing pleasure at his handling of 'wetbacks', something that doesn't go unnoticed in the Border Patrol.

In the diner, Luanne strikes up a friendship with Rachel (Melissa Leo), waitress, wife of the owner and involved with both local sheriff Frank Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) and rancher Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones). Some afternoons, Rachel and Luanne skip the diner and meet with Pete and an illegal Mexican that he's hired, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo), for a few hours together in a motel. The best of friends, Melquiades asks Pete that, should anything happen to him in the United States, he take him home to be buried. But when Melquiades' body is found in an unmarked grave, Pete stays true to his word and makes plans to take his body south. If needs be, with the help of the man who killed him...

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada could be a western. It feels like one, looks like one and in its smattering of Mexican between the English of the American cast, sounds like one. And yet the west, as prominent as it is - one can easily make the point that the startling backdrops provided by Texas and Mexico are as much a character in the film as Melquiades Estrada - doesn't so pervade this film as to make it what one might assume to be a western. Instead, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is, much like John Sayles' Lone Star before it, a movie set in the modern west but is often oblivious to its history. Certainly, it doesn't need the west and could well do without the horses, the ranch and the dusty sands into which Melquiades Estrada is thrice buried but it is also a film that understands the ragged beauty of the place and how, in as lonely as one gets, men can be driven to do terrible things.

In the case of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, it distills the essence of what drives Pete Perkins to care for his friend long after his death in the desert, shot whilst tending goats. Like Chris Cooper's Sheriff Sam Deeds in Lone Star, who accepted that the truth about his father where others could not, Perkins is prepared to give everything up for his friend, his job, his home and even his life to see Melquiades buried in his home. But as much as that is the starting point for this film, it also becomes as much a tale about the redemption of Mike Norton, his finding hope whilst running ragged behind Perkins and his discovering companionship whilst sharing a mule with the body of Melquiades Estrada. When, having already hit rock bottom, he literally stumbles upon a group of Mexicans watching the American soap opera Luanne is addicted to, his reaction is a mix of laughter and tears, drowned in the tequila handed to him as a gift.

Despite it feeling unintentional, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada has much to recommend it by reveling in the sense of destiny that comes with being drunk. Consumed, not with alcohol, but by a need to see his friend buried in his home village, Tommy Lee Jones becomes increasing erratic as the film progresses, each movement the overreaction that will be familiar to anyone with a clear memory of nights spent drunk. The clarity of the opening third becomes, in the end, a need to just keep going regardless of what happens, even when, as might be expected of a road movie, the unexpected is all that one is left with.

Like a late-night journey home, those cowboys, migrants and lonely souls that Tommy Lee Jones meets in the desert take on overtones that are at one time sinister or welcoming, each one part of a overriding story arc but, taken individually, as confusing as drunken encounters always are. There is even, late in the film, a scene in a bar that, for all that it doesn't quite fit, may be the most beautiful thing that you'll ever see, the out-of-tune piano making a perfect marriage with the hundreds of lights in the dusky sky, through which Tommy Lee Jones staggers from the tequila that he's been drinking. His final notes, of hopelessness and of a success touched with mania are like the last words of a drunk before sleep. And as he leaves the film walking out into the desert, his is a journey that, though come to an end, may not have been the one that was in his mind as he rode out of Texas.


Whilst The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada does look very good on DVD, one suspects that this has rather more to do with the cinematography of Chris Menges than with the transfer by Optimum. Certainly, the DVD doesn't disappoint but only really satisfies when it could have been a good deal better. The more nondescript scenes show this up, revealing a lack of detail in the faces of Tommy Lee Jones and Melissa Leo when sat in their hotel rooms, made more noticeable when one isn't distracted by the stunning scenery in the background. Granted, the location shoots do look stunning but the interiors are often disappointing, albeit comparatively so but still lacking in detail.

Amongst the first things that you ought to do on playing this film is switching the audio track away from its 2.0 Stereo default to the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. In surround, this is a much more satisfying experience, the score, if not directed that way, certainly sounding as though it intends on using all six speakers to offer a rich and rewarding accompaniment to the visuals. With a clear soundstage and a rumbling element to the deep voices of the likes of Jones, this is a terrific sounding film, made all the better by a 5.1 mix that is entirely sympathetic to the action.


Commentary: Tommy Lee Jones is a famously reticent interviewee so you might well be surprised to hear that he, as well as Dwight Yoakam and January Jones, have recorded a commentary for this release. As you might well expect, there's a lot of, "Hm!" not so much in contemplation but more as a means to fill in the frequent gaps that occur as sentences tail off without really ever making a point. Admittedly, this does get better as it goes on but there's the nagging feeling with it that the three contributors could add so much more to it had they loosened up.

Making of... (26m12s): Reflecting its origins from the film's showing at the Cannes film festival, this features French title screens and English subtitles, which are on by default but are not burnt in, but is otherwise in English. It's a reasonable feature on the making of the film, finding the time for interviews with Tommy Lee Jones, the rest of the principal cast and writer Guillermo Arriaga but one could do with less behind-the-scenes footage and more. Even the footage from Cannes doesn't actually include many contributions from Jones but behind-the-scenes at the press junket.

Making of the Music (7m52s): Despite having a name that suggests he may once have been a member of Front 242 or Cabaret Voltaire, Marco Beltrami was a student under Ennio Morricone and touches of his influences are clear in the score produced by Beltrami for this film. As Jones and Beltrami explain, however, such motifs are quite muted but it's a superb score and deservedly given space in this feature.

Extended & Deleted Scenes (27m17s): Much of the appeal of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is in what it leaves unsaid and off the screen, making these interesting but better that they were cut from the film. Presented in the order that they would have appeared in the film, so not in chronological order, these additional and extended scenes make the mistake of having Barry Pepper's character a sympathetic one long, thereby losing what he earns from the audience as the film progresses.

Interview with... (13m38s): Tommy Lee Jones, who looks uncomfortable in a shirt and tie, and writer Guillermo Arriaga are featured in a press interview at the Cannes film festival here in front of a room full of journalists. The questions never draw the best from Jones and Arriaga with both of them giving the replies one might expect from such a press conference.

Finally, there is a Theatrical Trailer (1m51s) for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada as well as for Dead Men's Shoes (1m38s), Brick (2m23s) and Amores Perros (2m09s).


This is a magnificent film, all the more surprising on learning that it is only Tommy Lee Jones' second film as a director. But this inexperience, rather than being a worry, may work to the film's advantage. Rather than being a more experienced hand looking for a narrative within the story, Jones pulls a sleight of hand, breaking up the chronology of the film whilst ensuring that the story remains arrow straight.

Speaking of which, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada will be a tonic for those missing the touching stories occasionally offered by David Lynch, this being something of a spiritual brother to The Straight Story. It isn't that this viewer necessarily objects to Lynch's more frequent flights into surrealism but going by The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, Lynch can do understated melancholy more ably than he might admit. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, for all its moments of insanity, will fit well into the life of someone who still harbours a fondness for the journey of Alvin Straight.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:50:54

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