The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada directed by Tommy Lee Jones, written by Guillermo Arriaga, with Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, Melissa Leo and January Jones. 121 minutes. A Sony Classics/Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (February 24). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Tommy Lee Jones makes his directorial debut at age 60 with this odd modern western. Written by the Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada suggests that the screenwriter is fully familiar with the absurdist tropes of Buñuel and Borges, as well as Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia.
Jones plays Pete Perkins, a ranch foreman whose friend, an illegal Mexican vaquero (Julio Cedillo) is shot by Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), a member of the border patrol. Angered by the inaction of the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam), who doesn't much care who shot a "wetback," Pete learns the identity of the killer, abducts him and makes him dig up the body so they can return it to Melquiades's village in Mexico.
Jones, who grabbed the best-actor prize at Cannes (Arriaga got the screenplay nod), takes the chance to connect with his Texas roots and get all gruff and whiskery, like Gabby Hayes with a homicidal edge. This gives him a big edge over co-star Pepper, who sinks deep into the role of insensitive jerk, with a side order of brutality.
There's a huge set of class and ethnic prejudices at work in this film, which has no bad Mexican characters. Pepper and Yoakam are the sort of white authority figures who confirm every fear held by people of colour in the American Southwest.
Mike is trailer trash - the film starts with him acquiring a double-wide - who cleans his toenails in the living room with a folding knife, is indifferent to his wife's needs and likes to beat on those he catches crossing the border without papers. Yoakam's local sheriff is just indifferent.
We're set up to loathe Mike and admire the honour-driven Pete, but about halfway along their journey into Mexico, our sympathies shift as we realize that Mike's right. Pete is indeed crazy and, just as important, Mike doesn't deserve his punishment.
Yes, he killed Melquiades Estrada, but he didn't murder him. He may be a brute but he doesn't deserve to be dragged through the desert, snakebit, have his nose broken and hauled across a river on a rope to rebury a man he never met. Actually, he does deserve to have his nose broken. That's either a perfect bit of karmic payback or the screenwriter indulging his love of insane serendipity. (Check 21 Grams if you doubt Arriaga's fondness for berserk coincidences.)
This makes for unexpected thematic complications. We start out with the traditional vengeance-driven western hero, only to have our usual thematic assumptions pulled out from under us.
Pete could've shot Mike and we wouldn't really have questioned his motives for doing so. Quick, clean and pretty much an eye for an eye. Biblical, even. But Pete's choice of a less fatal but ongoing punishment destroys that moral equivalency. He chooses torture as a form of justice.
Repentance shown at gunpoint is about as valuable as a confession given under torture. The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada winds up as a fascinatingly ambiguous morality fable.
It would be negligent not to mention the work of the great British cinematographer Chris Menges (The Killing Fields, North Country), who exquisitely captures the desert light.