The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Actor Tommy Lee Jones makes his directorial debut with a story about death, revenge and, ultimately, understanding and compassion. Transplanted border patrol officer, Cincinnatian Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), with his wife Lou Ann (January Jones), arrives on the Texas-Mexican boundary none to happy with his assignment. While on patrol, he is shot at (so he thinks) and, without thinking, returns fire, killing a local goat herder (Julio Cesar Cedillo). He and his superior, Captain Gomez (Mel Rodriguez), try to cover up the killing but the dead man’s friend, Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), knows the truth and wants retribution in “The Three Burials of Melguiades Estrada.”

Jones delivers a solid directing job his first time off the helmer starting block with “The Three Burials of Melguiades Estrada.” This modern day western, shot on location in the rugged lands between the US and Mexico, deals with current issues, such as illegal immigration and racism, but on a personal level, too, where friendship, loyalty and fulfilling a promise are the keynotes of the film.

Mike Norton hates his latest assignment and his treatment of the “wetbacks” (illegal border crashers), as he calls them, shows the depths of his disdain. When Melquiades Estrada (Cedillo), protecting his herd from a marauding fox, starts shooting, the border cop shoots first and, too late, thinks later. A hasty grave and cover-up by the border police raises Pete’s suspicions and, remembering his promise to take his friend home to Mexico if something happened, the ranch foreman takes matters into his own hands.

Pete seizes Norton at gunpoint and makes the patrolman dig up Mel’s body (interred a second time in a local town graveyard) and forces the border cop to accompany him on his mission. This begins a journey of vengeance and redemption as the pair, with body in tow, must cross a forbidding land to a location known to Pete only as Jimenez. Along the way, they must avoid the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) and encounter natural hazards – at one point, the burro carrying Mequiades’s body falls of a cliff, forcing a detour in Pete’s quest – rattlesnakes and being lost. Pete and Mike meet and are helped by various folks along the way, including an old blind man (Levon Helm) and a healer (Vanesa Bauche) that Mike had previously brutalized in an aborted border crossing.

Pete’s Quixotic journey is a throwback to older westerns as he, with Mike bound and helpless, makes the long, arduous trek across some of the most forbidding lands in the world. This flight from the law and to the fulfillment of a sacred promise reminds me of John Ford’s “Three Godfathers” but with a darker, new millennium sensibility. “The Three Burials…” keeps you wondering just where it is going – revenge or redemption? – and keeps you interested until the very end.

Tommy Lee Jones, the actor, gives such a strong, focused character in Pete Perkins, that you forget that Tommy Lee Jones, the helmer, is directing him. Jones does a remarkable job on both fronts, breathing life into his character and making him a real, compassionate and angry person. Barry Pepper does an exemplary job as the conflicted border cop, Mike Norton. His disgust with his assignment and the illegals under his control is palpable and there is always the question whether he can be redeemed for killing Estrada. Norton is a combination of perpetrator and victim and Pepper lends the man depth and nuance as the story unwinds.

Jones musters a rich supporting cast of, to American audiences, mostly unknowns. Dwight Yoakam (“Sling Blade”), as Sheriff Belmont, is one of the few recognizable names in the player list and does a decent job in fully realizing his character – especially when confronted with the choice to use deadly force to stop Pete from crossing the border. January Jones (“Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights”) fares less well as her character motivations are not mined to satisfactory levels. Others, like Levon Helm and Mel Rodriguez, are allowed to give depth to their roles and richly fill in the background characters.

The well-crafted script, by Guillermo Arriaga (“21 Grams”), is intriguing and multifaceted. My only complaint is, early on in the film, the use of flashbacks is not clearly defined and you have to figure out what is really happening before it gets satisfying. Once the story finds its level, though, it becomes a fascinating character study of both Pete Perkins and Mike Norton. Arriaga has proven, with “21 Grams,” “Amores Perros” and, now, “The Three Burials of Melguiades Estrada,” his mettle as an intriguing, creative storyteller.

Technical aspects, especially the brilliant cinematography by veteran lenser Chris Menges, do the story justice and show the rugged, oft deadly and beautiful locations to excellent stead.

The Three Burials of Melguiades Estrada” comes out at a tough time of year with all of the major and minor studios vying for audience attention. I’m afraid that this small but potent film may be lost in the shuffle and be pushed to the wayside by the big guys on the block. The title, too, while saying it all, is long and hard to pronounce, which may turn off many viewers who can more readily remember “King Kong” or “Munich.” I hope I’m wrong and “The Three Burials…” garners the attention of moviegoers looking for deeply satisfying and poignant film fare. I give it an B+.

Mike Norton (Barry Pepper, HBO's "61," "25th Hour") has just moved his wife from Cincinnati to a Texas town where his overly aggressive handling of illegal Mexicans as a border patrolman draws strong criticism from his boss, Captain Gomez (Mel Rodriguez, "Panic Room").  But Gomez contrives a cover up with Sheriff Belmont (country music star Dwight Yoakam, "Sling Blade") when his hair trigger recruit accidentally shoots a local man, and it's up to the dead Mexican's good friend, rancher Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones, "The Missing," "Man of the House"), to unearth the truth and deliver on a promise that brings about "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada."

What a unique surprise.  An actor known for his bellowing gruffness makes his theatrical directorial debut starring as a firm but quiet morals teacher and loyal friend.  Guillermo Arriaga's  ("Amores perros," "21 Grams") story, while keeping his signature interwoven character strands and a titular triptych that works as chapter headings, has a cleaner, more linear line without  sacrificing the character insights gained from flash backs and flash forwards and Chris Menges's ("Dirty Pretty Things," "The Good Thief") rich cinematography makes the landscape a character of its own.  "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," while let down slightly by a cloudy conclusion, is one of 2005's most engrossing films.

Mike's not operating much above the basest human instincts.  We're introduced to him as he chases down border crossers, then proceeds to punch a woman in the face.  He has quick mechanical sex with his bored wife Lou Ann (January Jones, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights") in their mobile home.  In fact, he's taking a break from work, having pulled over off a desert road to jack off to a Hustler, when he's surprised by Melquiades Estrada's gunfire.  With his pants around his knees, he blindly returns fire.  When he discovers he's killed a man who was only protecting his livestock from a coyote, he panics and gives the guy a crude burial.

The town's connective character is Rachel (Melissa Leo, "21 Grams"), the wife of local diner owner Bob, mistress to both Pete and the Sheriff, and soon to be comrade in arms to Mike's wife Lou Ann.  It is Rachel who hooks up the young bored wife with Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo, "The Life of David Gale," "The Alamo") on a daytime double motel date with herself and Pete and it is Rachel who overhears Belmont and Gomez hushing up the identity of Estrada's murderer and reports the news back to his friend.  Rachel and Pete clearly have reason to believe Mike is guilty of first degree murder.

But Pete's actions are surprising.  He had recently made a promise to Melquiades that if anything ever happened to him, he'd ensure the man was buried back in Mexico near his family in his home town of Jiminez.  He uses Mike as his instrument to ensure that promise and one of the great things about Jones's movie is that the man slaughterer and the victim's friend never do learn the truth as each other sees it.  After attempting escape to no avail, beaten down by the rugged landscape and a rattlesnake bite, Mike is finally broken and begins to profess his innocence of intent.  But Pete doesn't seem to listen, his own intent not revenge but to honor his friend.  Mike gets his comeuppance in many ironic and amusing ways, looking about as bad as Estrada's corpse by the end of a torturous journey.  There is an underlying theme of 'what goes around, comes around' in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," evident not only in Mike's fate but with the blind man (a terrific Levon Helm of The Band, "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole") who helps the travellers along their way.

Tommy Lee Jones hasn't been this enjoyable on screen since 2000's "Space Cowboys."  It's a very relaxed performance for a guy who's also orchestrating the entire film.  Unfortunately he and Arriaga can't quite put over the film's fanciful conclusion.  We can't be sure whether Pete is deluded or not.  The underrated Barry Pepper is Jones's punching bag and the actor makes us feel his pain if he never really gains our sympathy.  Does he have an epiphany at the third burial?  Again, those final moments don't satisfy the way what before them has. Still, this has an unusual sensibility for a film that feels like a Western.  It's a beautifully crafted and original piece of work.  Hats off to Mr. Jones.

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